With the Academy Awards ceremony right around the corner, on Sunday, February 9, this is a good time to be catching up with the major nominees that you missed upon first release. Your humble correspondent had a ticket to see Noah Baumbach’s superb Marriage Story – nominated for six Oscars – when it was the closing-night feature in the 2019 Woodstock Film Festival, but an ill-timed stomach virus put the kibosh on me writing an early review. I’ve finally caught up with it on Netflix, and am happy to corroborate that it’s as fine a piece of work as everyone has been saying for months now.
Divorce falls high on the list of major life stressors, and about half of us end up going through one personally. Particularly if children are involved, we’re likely to end up behaving in uglier ways than we ever imagined we would. In a way, the experience is so commonplace that, by itself, it doesn’t make enough of a story to support the core of a film. There have been a few exceptions, such as Kramer vs. Kramer and Scenes from a Marriage, but in general, movies “about divorce” tend to be more about people picking themselves up and putting themselves back together after divorce. And more often than not, they stick to a single point of view, painting the other former partner as the bad guy.
The brilliance of Marriage Story as a narrative is that, right from the get-go, it doesn’t. It opens with voiceovers in which the separating couple, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), enumerate things they really appreciate about each other. It’s an exercise imposed by a mediation counselor, but one that doesn’t get verbalized once they’re in his office, because Nicole finds it hard going to step out from under what she sees as Charlie’s dominating personality. It’s just not the right time to be reminded of the good stuff they once had together.
Those reminders do serve the audience, however, establishing a baseline that neither of these two people, for all their faults, is a monster. It’s something we’ll be needing later on, when both fall under the sway of cutthroat divorce lawyers and have confrontations where they end up saying meaner things than they intended. Caught in the middle of the conflict is their winsome small son Henry (Azhy Robertson), whom Nicole has taken with her to live in her native California while Charlie has to fly back and forth between LA and New York in order to spend time with his offspring. Both parents love Henry to bits, but it’s not enough to overcome the centrifugal force of the dreams that Nicole gave up when she joined MacArthur-certified-genius Charlie’s acting company.
This is one of those movies where cities become characters in themselves, and there’s a fair bit of humor trashing LA as a place for humans to live. New York looks grungier, but the California lifestyle is more vapid and soulless. Charlie keeps insisting that “We’re a New York family,” and we’re sympathetic to his not wanting to relocate to the land of plastic sunshine in pursuit of proximity to his kid. But it’s also a great big red flag of his blind spots with regard to being aware of what his wife wants for herself, or indeed that she wants anything at all.
Director Baumbach, who chronicled the impact on himself as a child of his own parents’ divorce in The Squid and the Whale (2005), exercises a particular sort of genius in paring down the layers of complex characters as he tilts our sympathies now in favor of Nicole, now of Charlie – sometimes multiple times in the same extended scene. And that’s kind of the point. That they can’t make it work anymore, that the only possible happy ending is carving out a satisfying life post-marriage, which doesn’t make them bad people. It doesn’t even mean that, at some enduring level, they don’t still love each other. Both Driver and Johansson put in career-best work as they bring these two infuriating, endearing humans alive. No wonder they’re both on the Oscar-contenders’ list.
The ever-incandescent Laura Dern is also up for a statuette, in the Supporting Actress category, as Nicole’s overzealous legal ally Nora. She has some bravura scenes coaching Nicole to demand more for herself, but her character leans a little too far in the direction of caricature. Ray Liotta as Driver’s second and more intense attorney Jay is even more so; Alan Alda as the gentler option, Bert, seems more human. I also rolled my eyes pretty much every time Julie Hagerty was onscreen as Nicole’s chirpy mom. And the great Wallace Shawn is almost embarrassing in a tiny role as a member of Charlie’s troupe whose 15 minutes of fame are long behind him.
Best to keep your eyes on the two leads here, as they circle, retreat from and attack one another in the center of the bullring that is a disintegrating marriage. In fact, you’ll find it hard to look away. You’ll be thankful for the occasional tension-diffusing interjections of Randy Newman’s ironically sunny, piping score, oh-so-Newmanesque but sparingly applied. Baumbach’s wry screenplay also supplies just enough verbal humor to keep things from getting too grim as we watch fundamentally decent people suffer and behave badly. It takes a deft touch to keep such a story from becoming a total downer, but this crew has got it. Recommended.