SFIFF Review: Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s Divorce Drama is a Deeply Felt Tale of Undying Love Undone

Marriage Story was a movie that I was incredibly skeptical of going in. Director Noah Baumbach is a filmmaker of extreme specificity and hyper-literacy, drilling deep into the world of New Yorker intellectuals and quasi-intellectuals. Sculpting characters whose entire existence serve as self-reflection and meta-commentary on the relationship between art, artifice, and a sense of self. These exercises can sometimes result in wry, knowing comedies that juggle expected indie archetypes well (Frances Ha, Mistress America, and The Meyerowitz Stories come to mind), but it’s a style that can sometimes feel needling, insisting upon itself and its own cleverness (While We’re Young being the prime example).

This style at once feels like an obvious move for the story of an self-destructing marriage, but it’s something that could quickly become rote. Insisting too much upon the emotional wreckage of divorce, feeling more like a funeral dirge than exploration of humanity. But Baumbach does the the seemingly impossible. He rearranges the divorce drama to be about something besides the emotional blow-ups, and instead creates a story about how the end of married life is not the end of the love between the two individuals and the world they shared.

The individuals in this case are theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and his actress soon to be ex-wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). The split comes when Nicole wants to further her career beyond the stage and star in a TV series shooting in LA, while Charlie wants to remain in New York to prep his first big move to Broadway. Tearing this bi-coastal feud even further apart is where their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) will stay.

What follows is an agonizing disintegration. The process is slow and revealing, mostly simmering in the realm of the comedic before plunging into the depths of the heart wrenching. The tact that Baumbach takes is clever one, positing that a divorce is not a enormous life altering event right up until the moment it is. For a while Charlie and Nicole try to navigate around each other as if things will be quickly reverted to a version of status quo. Charlie is greeted warmly by Nicole’s parents, Nicole is congratulatory on Charlie’s success as a director. But this is a simple band-aid used to obfuscate the heartbreak to come.

And the heartbreak does come, and it’s a more tragic collapse because of the frothiness that Baumbach has infused into the narrative. He knows that divorce is a fight for control with no real winners, that the end result will not be the best outcome, but the least worst one. So when Charlie and Nicole finally sharpen their knives and go on the attack whether through their lawyers or in person, it feels all the more despondent. People lashing out because they want to return to how things were, but knowing full well that the past is why they’re splitting in the first place.

This war of wills would be nothing if the actors weren’t up to the test, but Baumbach has pulled out career best work from Driver and Johansson, topping a decade of material that has moved both of them into the defining actor and actress of a generation. Johansson ably walks the line of being sympathetic and the driving force of the relationship’s end, she wants out and realizes how much it will hurt to leave, but recognizes that there’s no other choice. She has to inflict the pain to move forward,

Driver has an even more staggering role, vacillating between well-to-do solipsist and down-and-out dad without sacrificing the core attributes of his personality. And every emotion is pitched just right, whether it be torrential outbursts or introspective ruminating. He’s a man who’s always on the edge, but trying his darndest to work back to stable ground, no matter the blood, sweat, and tears it will take.

Both leads are supported ably by a stellar supporting cast. Laura Dern and Ray Liotta both get to go to the rafters as slimy, but oddly well intentioned, lawyers. Wallace Shawn gets two gasbagging monologues about how great he is, and tells Driver, to “fuck as many women and men as possible.” The side players also beautifully stretch the tonal realm of the film, allowing a broad emotional palette to sweep in, letting Driver and Johansson to lead without consuming the whole story.

It’s the broadness of the emotional tenor of Marriage Story that makes it so winning. The definition of, “you’ll laugh and you’ll cry.” Finding room in a grand unraveling for quotidian observation and offhanded beauty. It’s Baumbach’s best work by a mile and one of the best movies of the year.

Odds and Ends

  • Awards Watch: Marriage Story has had serious Oscar buzz since it’s premiere in Venice, and it seems entirely warranted here. Driver feel like a lock for a best actor nomination (and seems to be strong favorite for a win), Johansson could also swoop in during a relatively light actress year, and it seems likely to be nominated for best screenplay and picture as well. The big question is how Netflix markets this in comparison to their other big play The Irishman.
  • There’s a great cat in this movie.
  • This is a surprise Halloween picture. The spooky holiday being the center of two emotional setpieces of the movie.