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Saturday, January 18, 2020

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story is that rare kind of movie that seems to come from a completely honest place.  There's not an ounce of contrivance, and no moment that doesn't feel natural.  It feels real and lived in from beginning to end, and it is easily the filmmaker's more assured movie to date.  This film about love lost, divorce, and the struggle to hold the family together afterward has more emotion in one scene than some movies have in their entirety. 

Because of this, it was not surprising to learn that Baumbach based his screenplay not only on his own relationship and eventual divorce from his former wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, but also on his close friends and their own experiences.  He has made a simple film, one without plot twists or revelations.  It is simply a story of a couple that have drifted apart, and try to hold onto what little they have left for each other for the sake of their young son.  Baumbach has tackled the subject of divorce before with his 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, which was based on his memories of his parents splitting up.  He goes much deeper into the subject this time, showing not just the struggles, but exploring the aftermath on everyone in the family.

The couple at the center of it all are played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, both of them giving career peak performances.  He's Charlie, an acclaimed Off-Broadway director whose career has been on the rise, and now has reached new heights due to him recently winning the MacArthur Genius Grant, and the opportunity to have his latest production transfer to Broadway.  She is Nicole, who has been his wife for 10 years, and is the mother to their eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).  Nicole started out as a film actress in L.A., and is best known for appearing in a teen sex comedy in her early 20s where she famously showed off her breasts.  She left the Hollywood scene for New York, met Charlie, and has spent the past ten-plus years helping to support him, and appearing in all of his plays.

But now they want different things.  Nicole has the opportunity to go back to L.A., as she's been offered a lead role in a TV pilot that may be picked up for a series.  Charlie has no interest in going to California, as his career is really starting to hit its stride.  There's also some talk of infidelity on Charlie's part.  All of this is what causes the split between the couple.  In the film's opening scene, we hear both Charlie and Nicole talk about what they admire about each other.  This is part of a marriage counseling exercise.  However, when they are in the actual counseling session, Nicole finds that she does not want to read what she's written out loud to her soon-to-be ex-husband.  They obviously still respect one another in some way, but they cannot communicate with one another  The actors in Charlie's production gossip about them.  They've been together both personally and professionally for so long, they can't believe they're splitting up.

Marriage Story is an emotional roller coaster of a film that shows us the anger and resentment that can build due to the difficult process of finalizing a divorce.  Nicole heads to L.A. to live with her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Weaver), and Charlie thinks the plan is that he'll stay in New York, and they'll figure out a way for them to share custody of Henry.  But then the lawyers get involved, and things become a lot more complicated.  Charlie will have to get a residence in California if he wants any hope of some kind of custody with his son.  Both hire hard-edged lawyers who guide them through the legal waters.  Nicole gets Nora (a wonderful Laura Dern), who has a sunny and sometimes funny disposition, but it hides a ruthless streak.  As for Charlie, he finds it harder to get a lawyer, as Nicole interviewed so many, and he finds out he can't use a lawyer that his ex-wife considered  He at first tries a kindly old man lawyer (Alan Alda) who tries to keep him out of the courts, but Charlie quickly figures out this isn't going to work, so he goes for the aggressive Jay (Ray Liotta) to represent him instead.

This is a movie that will cut deep to just about anyone who has experienced the pain of a separation, and that plays a big part of the film's ultimate success.  There are no false crises, and not a contrived subplot to be found.  It's simply about two people trying to make their way through the legal process, and the emotional toll that it takes on them and their son who is caught in the middle.  Both of them want to be there for their son, but in order to share him, they have to compromise.  On Halloween, both want to take Henry Trick-or-Treating, and find they have to divide their time, with Charlie being stuck taking him later in the night when most of the homes are no longer handing out candy.  Complications arise from the simple matter of everyone trying to live their lives while sharing a son, and the drama of the film builds from these honest complications, not misunderstandings.

But it is the lead performances that truly sell Marriage Story, and make it the emotional punch to the gut that it is.  With this and JoJo Rabbit, Johansson has perhaps not been better than recently, and reminds us of the early promise that she held.  She is more than worthy of both of the Oscar nominations she has received for her work in these films, but she stands out especially here, no more so than her initial conversation with her lawyer, and a scene late in the film where all of the pent-up anger between Charlie and her come out while they are alone together.  As for Driver, he proves once again that he is one of the finest actors working today, and gives some of his best work here.  We can see the frustration as something he thought would be an amicable process turns into something much more emotionally draining and devastating.

It's no surprise that Marriage Story is a film of raw power, but it goes beyond that, and becomes something completely honest and fierce.  There are absolutely no compromises here.  Baumbach has made a film of biting hard truths, pain and sadness, and one that deserves to be celebrated for many years to come.  This not only represents an ultimate high mark for the filmmaker, but also for the relationship drama genre as well.

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