Director: Noah Baumbach
Writer: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern
Stage director Charlie (Driver) and his actor wife Nicole (Johansson) struggle through a gruelling divorce that pushes both of them to their personal and creative extremes.
Though his films can sometimes verge on being a little bit too smug and pleased with themselves, and therefore be quite alienating, when Noah Baumbach is at the top of his game he most certainly does have an incredible ability to write a script that truly captures the endlessly intertwining tragedy and absurdity of real life. Real life can go from one emotion to another in an instant, and even in a stark moment of desperate sadness, it is still very possible for a humorous moment to occur. Likewise, most people we will encounter will be imperfect and flawed, with plenty of good and bad characteristics. Both the narrative of Marriage Story and the characters contained within it perfectly depict all of life’s imperfections and inconsistencies and produces one of the most engaging and moving films of the year.
Marriage Story is at times deeply moving, crushingly heart-breaking, absolutely hilarious and incredibly frustrating, and that is how it should be. Within the film Alan Alda’s sensitive lawyer states that “getting divorced with a kid is one of the hardest things to do. It’s like a death without a body”, and the film captures this sentiment perfectly and with absolute, well-observed and even-handed sensitivity. Though a person does not die, some THING definitely does die, as there is something that this couple once had that is gone forever, and now they are going through the tumultuous experience of dealing with the aftermath. One of the key rules that is often stated for writing stories is “write about what you know”, and just with the also excellent The Squid and the Whale Noah Baumbach bases the narrative on his own experiences, and his deep affection and understanding of what the characters experience is evident throughout, and it is an affection for all of the characters involved that the audience cannot help but also share.
One of the main reasons Marriage Story works so well is that it has a very even-handed approach in terms of the portrayal of its two main protagonists; there are individual moments when they both make rash and misjudged decisions, say things they shouldn’t and annoy the hell out of us. However, they always do what they believe to be the right thing to do and with the best of intentions (even if those intentions are sometimes misguided) and Baumbach skilfully makes sure that the film never favours one character over another. This just further adds to the conflict that we the viewer have, as if we able to distinctively like and dislike the two respective protagonists then we could pick a side, but Baumbach makes it impossible for us to do this (no matter what previous experiences of our own that we may have) and this just makes the film so much more engaging and moving as we cannot help but deeply care about both of them. Baumbach makes sure that not a single line of dialogue is wasted, despite the film’s running time of over two hours.
Another essential component for a drama like this to work on such a high level is of course the performances; as Charlie and Nicole, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give perfectly observed and understated performances that truly capture the internal anguish, confusion, conflict and desperation that they both go through. It is highly likely that their performances will deservedly attract plenty of awards nominations in the imminent awards season – as I am sure will Baumbach’s writing. There are also great performances from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as various divorce lawyers that the two protagonists come across, and all three of them portray their character’s differing styles and ideologies perfectly. Though Baumbach depicts the two main protagonists with balanced sympathy, his portrayal of lawyers does appear to be less favourable (especially in the case of Dern and Liotta’s lawyers), and though it could certainly be argued that they do verge on caricatures, they are not only a necessary plot device to show just how something that is so personal just becomes two competing, soulless tick sheets that can exaggerate and manipulate, but also the complete absurdity of some of the clichés and soundbites that they say. Likewise, Azhy Robertson is also excellent as the couple’s young son Henry.
Though there is no doubt that Marriage Story is a deeply moving film, but as said before, it is often also very funny. However, crucially the film’s abundance of comic lines and scenes never feel forced, cheap or out of place, and it is a great credit to Baumbach’s writing skills that this is the case. Likewise, despite being filmed in a narrow ratio the film is also very cinematic, and though it is on Netflix very soon (and so will be the means most people will see it) it does not feel out of place at the cinema thanks to Baumbach’s skilful camerawork, Robbie Ryan’s crisp, autumnal cinematography and Randy Newman’s subtle but moving score (that definitely takes a few riffs from his Toy Story score). This all caps of what has to be one of the best films of 2019, and quite possibly one of Netflix’s very best.
A stunning and perfectly observed film that will engage from start to finish; Marriage Story shows Baumbach, Driver and Johansson at the very top of the game and is both one of the best films of 2019 and very much an awards contender.