Film review: Marriage Story tackles a messy divorce with a knowing smile

Last updated on

★★★★★

In Noah Baumbach’s ironically titled Netflix release, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver break your heart as they pull apart each other’s.

Marriage Story is the latest from American independent writer-director Noah Baumbach, ostensibly telling the story of a marriage through its breakdown. Since his 2005 breakthrough The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach has incrementally grown from the new mumblecore poster-boy to universally acclaimed critical darling.

Variously, his films have both elevated new talent, most notably Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (2012), and rejuvenated the careers of floundering established players, concerning Ben Stiller with Greenberg (2010) and the ever-faltering Adam Sandler in The Meyerowitz Stories (2017).Baumbach’s winning streak is predicated upon a clean record—he hasn’t made a bad film in an over twenty-year career.

Recently, his rising star has been entwined with that of Adam Driver, whose Girls-to-Star Wars streak has been quite literally stratospheric. Marriage Story is their fourth film together, with Driver opposite Baumbach-newbie Scarlett Johansson as crumbling couple Charlie and Nicole Barber.

The film follows the end of their ten-year marriage, as their New York-based family collapses in a bitter divorce complicated by custody concerns for their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Charlie is an esteemed indie theatre director on the cusp of a Broadway breakthrough, notably paralleling Baumbach’s own positioning in the film world. Meanwhile Nicole is a former-screen star turned theatre muse, having uprooted to New York upon meeting Charlie.

Suffocated and discontent, Nicole wants to relocate to LA to restart her screen career and rejoin her family, while Charlie remains firmly placed with his NY company. The issue of where Henry is to be based—and with whom—is the main battleground, and the battle is spectacularly heart-breaking, vicious and funny.

YouTube video

In short, Marriage Story is a brilliant success on all fronts. The writing cuts right to the bone and reveals true insight into the emotional and practical nature of the US divorce process. Charlie and Nicole begin in counselling and graduate to screaming matches and dogfight lawyers, brilliantly and terrifyingly played by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta. Briefly, Alan Alda lends rare but ultimately ineffective humanity as Charlie’s more gentle representation.

Indeed, the text is informed by Baumbach’s own divorce with actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, hence the barely veiled similarities to their history. Directorially, the film plays in uncomfortable close-up, showcasing the absolute masterclasses from all involved—both Driver and Johansson excelling, with no weak link in the supporting cast. Scenes play out in long takes, and as arguments escalate the audience can only squirm and hope to never go through the same.

The film is rightfully already a hit, leading awards conversations and assuaging fears of Netflix—where it resides following a brief big screen release—lowering the bar for cinema. While it may still be the exception that proves the rule, however, remains to be seen. The power of the film is in not taking sides, demonstrating both ends of the dispute evenly. It lays bare audience biases and forces you to question assumptions, particularly gender-based, about right and wrong in relationships.

What I found most chilling is how in such circumstances, every action is received as an attack on the other, such as in how Nicole “rewards” Henry for time with Charlie as if it were a dentist visit. What is ultimately underscored is that nobody wins in such matters, as much due to American law as the divorcers themselves. Nonetheless, for every showstopping verbal dispute there is a comic touch that undercuts the otherwise overwhelming emotion. For one, Wallace Shawn as a member of Charlie’s troupe is a delight whenever on-screen.

Somewhat gratifyingly, we see that while the marriage may be over, for good and bad their relationship will never be. Charlie and Nicole share too much to depart each other’s lives completely, and so Marriage Story beautifully, painfully characterises both the process of divorce and the transformation of an ongoing relationship.


Like this? Try these…

Matthew Floyd

I write about and curate film, based in Birmingham. Programme Coordinator for World of Film International Festival, screening new independent world cinema in Glasgow and beyond. Equally devoted to the popular and the niche. Lover of live music, hardcore punk and festival season.