Marriage Story Review: Baumbach shows the hard knocks of divorce and struggles of staying together
While it’s generally said that breaking up is hard to do, writer/director Noah Baumbach shows that divorce is even more destructive with his new film Marriage Story.
The film follows Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), a married couple seeking a divorce as their interests clash and the two slowly fall out of love with each other. The one thing that they don’t want to see change, though, is their love for their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) and they don’t want their relationship to turn toxic just because their separating. However, when divorce lawyers get involved, things slowly take a nasty turn for Nicole and Charlie and their issues and problems with one another and the situation create a deep rift in their lives. So with all of their issues coming to light at a rapid pace, Nicole and Charlie must figure out how to come together while they’re coming apart to create the best environment for Henry and themselves.
The opening of the film is absolutely brilliant as it immediately burrows into your heart by showing the love and connection that Nicole and Charlie once had, and still have, for one another. Right away, there’s a genuine connection that you have with Charlie and Nicole that makes you instantly love them. From how they both hate to lose at Monopoly to way they describe themselves as well as each other, these people come off real and not like characters in a movie. Not to mention, it’s a perfect glimpse into the incredibly powerful performances that Johansson and Drive give through the film and they only get better and better.
There’s a line in the film along the lines of “criminal lawyers bring out the best in you while divorce lawyers bring out the worst” and that’s exactly what Baumbach shows throughout the film. The second that lawyers come into the picture, the idea of them being civil with one another goes out the window and you essentially watch two people you’ve grown to love slowly take each other down. However, it’s not done in a comedic way and Baumbach keeps things grounded in a way that’s heartbreaking to watch. Seeing how Nicole feels belittled by Charlie because she feels like she’s never heard and Charlie fight and at times fail to prove that’s worth custody of Henry is really tough at times and Baumbach pulls no punches into the emotional turmoil they’re going through. There’re times where emotions boil over, but it never feels as if Baumbach is creating drama for sake of it, but rather because of the through line of their divorce and the build-up of their emotions.
Even when things are at their worst, you oddly never fully pick a side and the film never villainizes one person or chooses one perspective to tell. Both Nicole and Charlie’s perspectives are shown and even when we see their selfishness or true desires come out, it’s never clear cut how to feel about it and it really showcases the complex nature of their situation. There’re even times where you can tell that things are going too far and that they even still have love for one another and hate to see someone hurt. Their story is literally like walking on egg shells the whole time and it makes you love and sympathize with them just about every step of the way. I will say that Baumbach rides this line hard with Charlie as a certain detail about why Nicole wants to divorce makes it a little tough to sympathize with him, but their love for Henry really digs deep into the competitive nature that divorce brings out and that the lawyers attempt to use against Nicole and Charlie.
With the lawyers, Baumbach not only brings out the volatile nature of divorce, but the financial burdens that aren’t often talked about. Nicole and Charlie aren’t wealthy so lawyers are far from affordable and seeing them, especially Charlie, having to constantly go over hurdles just to not have everything taken away is crazy at times. Even the underlying vindictive nature of Nicole’s lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), is crazy with how it starts such a strong rift between the two and it’s what makes Charlie’s initial lawyer, Bert (Alan Alda) so pleasant. Both of them put in great performances with Alda acting as a strong father figure to Charlie and genuinely trying to show some compassion for him and Dern being a driving force for Nicole’s independence.
Marriage Story’s genuineness doesn’t just work for its heartbreaking nature, though, as it also allows for some perfectly funny moments. The humor is on-point throughout the film and allows for viewers to connect more with Charlie and Nicole. Like I said before, everything about the film feels real, including the humor, and it’s a testament to how strong Johansson and Driver’s performances are and how perfect Baumbach’s writing and direction are. Even the end of Marriage Story is perfect as it’s simple in concept and heartfelt in execution. It’s incredibly emotional, perfectly connects back to the opening, and leaves things on a somber and hopeful note.
This is filmmaking, performing, and storytelling at its finest and Baumbach utilizes everything in his arsenal and heart to make Marriage Story an experience unlike anything else. Even for a story about coming apart, everything comes together to create an emotionally impactful story that constantly has your heart. While it might be stuck making a limited theater run now, it’ll drop on Netflix on December 6th, so there’s no excuse to why you shouldn’t check it out.