Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever
Divorce has become such a reality on our times that reports often mention how half of all marriages result in a split of sorts. Depending on the driving force behind the divorce, the process could range from amicable to purely hostile. One thing that happens every time, however, is shifting what was once a loving relationship into a business transaction.
After experiencing marital troubles for some time now, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) see a mediator to hopefully end their marriage in good terms for the sake of their son. After an unsuccessful attempt, Nicole takes their son, Charlie, to Los Angeles to stay with her mother and serves Charlie with divorce papers. That leaves Charlie with having to travel to Los Angeles while continuing to manage his theater company in New York.
The way we experience a film or any piece of art results from a combination of the product with what we bring to the table. Personal biases play a factor and Marriage Story will have a different impact depending on the baggage the viewer brings. It might be a difficult viewing experience if you’re a child of divorce and have a first-hand experience of the horrors of the fights and animosity with this subject matter. I’m the other case where I’m in a happy marriage and this forces me to reflect on what I offer as a partner. The crux of the issue that drives Nicole and Charlie apart lies in the empty promises unknowingly made and ultimately never fulfilled. The way a couple will joke about accomplishing some life goal with one being adamantly for it and the other continually pushing it off. The issues feel so real, which serves as a testament to the greatness of this feature film.
Discussing the topic of divorce would not be a first for writer/director Noah Baumbach, who made his name in the industry with The Squid and the Whale. However, the sentimentality between that film and Marriage Story could not be more different. Partly based on his own divorce with actor, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach has accrued time to mature as a filmmaker and look back on his relationships along with the effects of his actions. Some of it must be attributed to his relationship with fellow writer/director Greta Gerwig. Ever since their collaborations began his work as a filmmaker not only improved, but also added heart to his storytelling. Their collaborations have produced his best work in Frances Ha, The Meyerowitz Stories, Mistress America, and now this film. The differences could not be starker in the way he views divorce from the child’s perspective and now as an adult. The writing in this film further displays the exceptional dialogue that has made him an indie darling.
While being a writer’s film, the acting serves as what makes it so special and it hinges on Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson winning the audience over. After viewing this film, there will be the inclination to choose sides on who received more screentime and representation but that goes against the message of the film. Both Charlie and Nicole share some blame in the end of their romantic relationship and staunchly trying to pick a side takes away from what they want to accomplish, which revolves around compromise. The writing sets up this idea incredibly well and the leads take it and give it their all. Scarlett Johansson gives such a delicate, yet forceful performance as Nicole. A character that has been willing to go with the flow and what Charlie perceives to be the best for the family. Nicole needs someone to help her realize her worth and that Charlie has not been meeting expectations. Adam Driver as Charlie shows a person so self-absorbed but oblivious to the true wishes of Nicole. His character has more ground to cover in order to connect with the audience because most of what negatively occurs lie on his shoulders. An uphill battle but Driver beautifully captures the inner goodness of Charlie and the dreams he wants to accomplish. Both actors have incredible chemistry and the moments where they face off and manage their emotions carry such weight.
The supporting cast brought so much to the story with most of them being divorce lawyers. They represent a system meant to wring out every last bit of love that might exist in a marriage during the separation process. The way things dug up from the past can be weaponized for a victory serves as an example. Laura Dern as Nora and Ray Liotta as Jay embody this perspective. Dern delivers a tremendous monologue regarding why Nicole should not go easy on Charlie because of the way the system views women in divorce proceedings. Alan Alda as Bert represents the opposite and the last bit of humanity left with divorce lawyers. He wants to get the best for his client while still attempting to keep some civility between all parties. These characters all highlight how ferocious the system can be for anyone going through these proceedings and how the smallest details can result in losing custody of your child.
While this story focuses on divorce, it truly stands as a story about marriage. How every little thing in marriage means something and the importance of communication. Sadness will prevail because it indicates the end of a relationship that originally did not have an expiration date. However, even with the melancholic nature, humor and love find their way through.