Marriage Story review: a fantastic portrait of people at their worst

There are many things about Marriage Story that you’d have to be insane not to love- watching Adam Driver act, watching Scarlett Johansson act, watching Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, et al. act, and hearing Noah Baumbach’s dialogue. So it stands to reason that watching Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern and others perform Baumbach’s dialogue would make for a truly excellent film. Marriage Story is funny, as you’d expect it to be based on its pedigree, it’s well acted, as you’d expect from that cast, but the overwhelming aspect of the movie is a sobering weight that occupies every scene. The funniest moments are complicated due to their accompanying heaviness, the saddest moments are exacerbated by this sensation, the angriest moments communicate a feeling like no other based on the darkly intoxicating fusion of anger and pervasive grief. Marriage Story invites you to wallow in this noxious sludge of emotions, and treats you to some of the finest performances of the year along the way.

Marriage Story opens on the main characters, Driver’s Charlie and Johansson’s Nicole, reading voiceover descriptions of what they love about each other over footage of their relationship. It then cuts to a separation counselor instructing them to read what they read to each other. From this moment, Marriage Story lets you know it will pull no punches. The next two hours chronicle their divorce as it progresses from an amiable affair to a bitter street fight involving ruthless, expensive L.A. lawyers, the public revelation of private information, and shouting matches based around emotion so raw you run the risk of salmonella just watching. The film tells a cohesive story, yet it’s first and foremost a collection of these moments, these primal expressions of anger and sadness and pain. Driver and Johansson sell these moments with the skill of the best actors in the world, which is because they are. Despite Driver being best known for Star Wars and Johansson being best known for the Marvel movies, they’re brilliant actors, more thespians than superstars here. This film will be most people’s introduction to the full extent of Driver’s brilliance (those who didn’t see Inside Llewyn Davis), and that’s fine, he’s at his career best here. This is an acting-based film, despite its brilliant screenplay, direction, and technical aspects. And while, going into it, you can expect to be crushed by an overwhelming tidal wave of emotion, a rewatch based just around focusing on the acting would be interesting.

This will get Driver his first Lead Actor Oscar nod (he was nominated for supporting last year for Blackkklansman), it remains to be seen whether or not he can win. It will also hopefully be Laura Dern’s Oscar, although there is substantial chatter for her Little Women performance, not to mention Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers. Johansson appears to be the only plausible challenge to Renee Zellweger in Judy, yet she’d still feel like a miracle winner at this point. The film is a major Oscar contender, and (in my mind), the likely winner of the big one (although 1917 could still blow the whole thing up). And like most of the current awards contenders right now, this one wouldn’t be a bad winner.

Everything here is firing on all cylinders. Driver and Johansson reach every extreme of emotion. These are people going through the worst experience of their life, and they sell it. One absolutely breathtaking sequence begins as a routine argument between the two and devolves into a shouting match of epic proportions, and features the best acting in the film on both ends. Another brilliant scene involving a knife features top notch work from Driver, who communicates the absolute disarray of Charlie’s life so perfectly. Johansson’s work is less explosive, with fewer signature moments and less bombast, but she’s equally powerful, giving a performance of quiet devastation and anguish that makes it impossible to dislike her despite the emotional attachment Driver’s performance requires you to give him. The scene early on where Johansson cries in the office of Laura Dern’s divorce lawyer Nora comes to mind as an example of her acting at her best.

Dern and Ray Liotta, opposing divorce lawyers, serve as foils to Charlie and Nicole. While the separating couple clearly have severe personal issues, they try their best to remain civil throughout the process of divorce. Dern and Liotta, prior to their courtroom showdown, interact completely amiably, showing that they clearly have no personal issues with each other. Then they have to do their jobs, and they’re at each other’s throats. And so are Nicole and Charlie, by proxy. The whole process is depicted as a circle of hell Dante never dreamed of, and its total insanity is best portrayed by the lawyers. Not just Dern and Liotta, however- Alan Alda’s kind older lawyer, who Charlie works with at the start, represents a kinder side to the process, one who’s optimistic and sensitive to Charlie’s wants. But he proves ineffective in the face of Nora’s tenacity and is let go. The message is clear, there’s no room for reason, no room for sanity, no room for kindness. Only malevolence and pain remain.

And then you have the Being Alive scene. The scene, in which Driver’s defeated Charlie belts out the song (from the conclusion, I believe, of Stephen Sondheim’s famous 1970 musical Company) in a bar quickly became the most talked-about moment in the film upon its festival premiere months ago. Now, a day after its wide release via Netflix, it’s been so talked about and dissected that we’ve reached the point in the Take cycle where people are talking about how it’s overrated to the point that it’s now underrated. The scene is fantastic, it’s Charlie laying bare his soul (maybe I’m just a big fan of Baumbach musical moments, Frances Ha‘s “Modern Love” scene is one of my favorite cinematic moments of the decade). Charlie has lost everything, his wife, his Broadway play, really his son. Now, when he’s already lost his life, he decides that it’s time to start living. And you feel for him, despite the fact that he’s been in the wrong the entire time. The dissolution of the marriage is clearly his fault, he’s shown to be an insensitive and at times deeply jealous husband and father. Yet the film avoids taking sides by a) portraying both characters as, at some level, wrong, and b) making you empathize deeply with both of them. These are complicated people: Charlie is self-centered and manipulative, but he’s facing down an unfair system designed to hurt him, and he still really does love Nicole and his son. Nicole is overly ruthless and cruel during the divorce, but she still cares for Charlie and doesn’t want to split their time with their son 55/45 in her favor because she still believes their situation should be amicable. In the end, the characters want nothing more than to be alive. Whether they succeed or not is debatable.

Rating: 4.5/5

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