When the movie opens with them listing what they love about each other, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) sound like the perfect NY couple. The list is an aww-inducing smorgasbord of practical delicatessen. But writer-director Noah Baumbach isn’t interested in the romance of couples magnetized by each other’s quirks and unique personalities. Instead, Marriage Story is a hard, unwavering look at the marcescent quality of couples locked together in a state of union blessed by the legal system, and what happens after the “..and they lived happily ever after” line is scoured by the ravages of daily struggles and by the evolution of each of the partners as a person and personality.
Baumbach rips off the band-aid of Nicole and Charlie’s relationship, but not in the manner of someone wanting to save you the pain or grief of seeing what’s festering beneath. He rips it with delicate ferociousness, ensuring that he exposes the flesh wound with a probe that’s relentless and badgeringly persuasive. Using Nicole as the crowbar in this relationship to pry apart the couple, the director slowly peels away the oxidizing effect of time and taking-for-granted have at a cellular and meta level. You realize how aspirations are asphyxiated and how, once the separation die is cast (summoned would be legally mot juste), situations, people, families, friends, and the child (Henry, played by Azhy Robertson) are thrown into a vicious whirlpool of legal brawls and competitiveness. Headlining the legal eagles are the superb Laura Dern playing Nora, a manipulative, sharp counselor and counselling expert to Nicole, and Ray Liotta‘s Jay Marotta, sparing no punches on behalf of Charlie. There’s also Charlie’s first lawyer who offers worldly and fine advice to him. That would be Bert Spitz, played with usual finesse and twinkling charm by Alan Alda, now concealing a worrying right-hand tremor in his scenes.
There’s also a deliciously written and directed scene involving Nicole’s family—her mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty) and sister Cassie (Merritt Wever in a delightful, fretful cameo) that spotlights how Nicole’s decision to go with Nora’s legal counsel strains all those in the couple’s orbit. And when the couple decides to take a step back and sort things on their own, the scene in Adam’s apartment in LA—he has to take one to cross a coast-to-coast hurdle involving custody and family GPS that’s as draining and tiring as it sounds—there’s an unforgiving, visceral scene that’s as heartbreaking as it is revealing. When it comes to comforting each other, the couple may still have not found anyone else.
Marriage Story is propelled by Randy Newman‘s whimsical and affecting score and its leads’ powerful performances. Scarlett Johansson is in top form, wracked by her own desires and life arc that’s calling and an opposing force of guilt. Adam Driver is magnificent, hopelessly unable to deal with this gigantic curve ball that’s ostensibly unfair and selfish. And yet, he’s unwilling to bend or give up. Even it means a horrid Halloween experience for Henry and him. (The contrast of candy collection is a metaphorical extension of everything that the couple has to offer to their son.)
Director Baumbach tears your heart even as he shows you its strange ways in relationships. Couples who fall in love and reach a compromise may have found their separate lives. But when it comes to the smallest gesture and unsaid support, a phantom shoe-lace tying reflex and pat makes you reflect. That list about what you love about them? It’s a good idea to read it out to them sooner than later.Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.
Marriage Story is streaming on Netflix and is rated A (Restricted to adults). Marriage is for adults. It’s no child’s game.
Director Noah Baumbach Time 2h 17min
Writer Noah Baumbach
Stars Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver
Genres Comedy, Drama, Romance