Premiering at the Venice Film Festival this past August, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” next screened at the Telluride Film Festival and then in Toronto, receiving praise and glowing comments in all three prestigious venues. Not only has the screenplay received well-deserved praise but also the movie’s leading actors, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, the latter being mentioned as a serious Academy Award contender.
Perhaps more aptly called “The Story of a Marriage Unraveling,” we first meet Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) in a therapist’s office where each has written several pages about kindnesses and quirky but charming traits they associate with each other. The therapist justifies this exercise as a means of mitigating some of the anger and as an avenue for getting in touch with a gentler time in their relationship. The strategy does not work with Nicole, who feels manipulated and leaves the room even more determined to end her marriage. However, as a strategy for introducing us, the audience, to these protagonists, it succeeds in providing a thumbnail sketch of two high-strung and sensitive individuals.
Not only have they been a married couple, but Charlie, a theater director, and Nicole, an actress, have worked together on many stage productions. Although the marriage has survived several theater productions and the success of birthing and parenting eight-year-old Henry (Azhy Robertson), Nicole now experiences Charlie as judgmental and controlling. Some of Charlie’s critical behavior can be encapsulated in his feedback on her last performance in their off-Broadway play, “At the end, I could tell you were pushing for the emotion.” For Nicole, this was an unnecessary and stinging comment on her well-reviewed performance.
Now freeing the shackles of her marriage, Nicole has flown to Los Angeles to star in a pilot for a new television series. Taking Henry with her, she is staying with her mother (Julie Hagerty) and her sister, Cassie (Merritt Wever). The couple has decided to end their marriage amicably; nevertheless, Charlie is startled when he flies to California to see his son, and his sister-in-law, in one of the movie’s more comic scenes, serves him with the divorce papers.
Noah Baumbach, having survived his own and his parents’ divorce, refers to the process as “the divorce-industrial complex – emotional, legal, financial, and parental” that takes over once a marriage dissolves. Nicole hires a highly recommended lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), smart, tough, and embellished with style and panache. The point of contention is not so much property but the custody and living arrangements for Henry. Charlie’s career requires him to live in New York, while Nicole has chosen to stay in Los Angeles.
Even amidst the wreckage of his marriage, Charlie does receive some good news in learning that he has won a MacArthur Genius Award for his work in the theater, having successfully staged a striking update of Sophocles’ “Electra.” But even with the generous award money, he is still financially strapped. Hoping for an amicable divorce settlement, he has originally hired Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), a more low-keyed and affordable attorney, but learning that Fanshaw will “eat him alive,” Charlie goes for Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), whose retainer fee starts at $25,000. Then there is the expense of maintaining another residence in Los Angeles so that he can see Henry on a regular basis.
Several factors elevate “Marriage Story” to a memorable film. Both Johansson and Driver create characters that are admirable and flawed at the same time. We respect and like them, even as we see their shortcomings, and both pull off long and sustained soliloquys that give us insight into their characters’ motivations. The supporting actors also hold our attention, even those such as Alda, who are on-screen for just moments, while Dern has already received possible award nods for her dynamic but amusing Laura Fanshaw. Enhancing this fine acting and well-written screenplay is the lovely, mood-setting musical score by the peerless Randy Newman.
TWO HITS: Don’t Miss it!
A HIT & A MISS: You Might Like it.
TWO MISSES: Don’t Bother.