“Marriage Story” Movie Review


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     The truly great films of our time are the ones which connect with the audience on an emotional level.  Sure, a large faction of the population tends to go to the movies seeking the kind of thrill and entertainment a summer blockbuster will often provide, but if they’re being honest, much of what they see only brings forth the kind of instant gratification that dissolves minutes after exiting the theater.  An exceptional film will allow us to really know the characters through superior acting and writing.  And when we find the story relatable in a way where its authenticity is not in question, the experience then becomes so much more than just a film.  You suddenly feel as though you’re living right alongside the characters as they endure the kind of painful and familiar situations which begin to really hit home.  Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” is one of those films.

     I’ve heard people liken divorce to this analogy.  If you were getting ready to skydive, and you were told the parachute fails to open fifty percent of the time, would you still jump?  And yet all of us, young and old, still get married, many times under an emotionally charged veil of  undeniable happiness that we  all experience initially when determining we have found the “one”, only to realize later how much both of you missed within the fog of love.  Since 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer”, no film has dared to bring the subject of divorce to the screen in its most raw and devastating form.  If you’ve been there, “Marriage Story” will likely recapture a familiar set of circumstances with a detailed play by play kind of accuracy to what was likely one of the most trying times of your life.

     In a story based on Baumbach’s own experience with his marriage suddenly falling apart, we follow Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), two New Yorkers working off Broadway, him a play director and her an actress, as they navigate their careers within an ultra competitive world, while also raising their young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).  In the opening scene, we hear both narrating a montage of scenes indicating the positive aspects each loves about the other.  We are meant to understand there was, at some point, a basis for the relationship that ultimately led to them tying the knot and having a family together.  But no sooner does this sequence end, do we realize the couple is in a mediation session where they are merely performing an exercise having them write down likable qualities about the other.  It seems touching, until it’s not.

     Nicole finds herself in a place where she believes her life and career are only a part of the world Charlie has created.  After gaining fame as a child star, she is regularly offered parts in films and television series, but turns them down in order to continue to be featured in Charlie’s plays, while keeping the family in New York and far from Los Angeles where she grew up.  Nicole soon realizes she lacks the kind of self fulfillment that comes from determining your own course, particularly where it involves her career, and decides to tell Charlie she wants a divorce.  That she does this at a time where she is leaving New York for Los Angeles, with their son, to film a television series is likely by design.  This puts her and Henry three thousand miles away and in the company of her mother, Sandra (Julie Hagerty), who happens to be a big fan of her son in law.

     Charlie is obviously aware of Nicole’s intentions, but words and phrases like “amicable” and “We don’t need lawyers” have been tossed around between them in a way that doesn’t indicate either one of them is looking to fast track the divorce.  But when Charlie arrives in Los Angeles to visit Nicole and Henry, who are staying at her mother’s house, he finds out otherwise.  And so begins the inevitable nastiness that comes when a divorcing couple has a child and lawyers get involved.  Following the advice of a new acquaintance, Nicole hires a Hollywood divorce attorney, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), who immediately has Charlie served papers marking the beginning of a long and turbulent process for both of them.

     Baumbach stages sequences that will be all too familiar for those who have endured this life altering process, including the eventual mud slinging in front of a full courtroom where accusations fly in the name of gaining an advantage for custody of the child.  The kind of crude gestures that lead to court appointed evaluators observing your parenting skills at home or interviewing your child and asking which parent they want to spend more time with.  They say divorce is second to the death of a loved one as the hardest time in your life to cope with, and there’s no question “Marriage Story” effectively makes that argument with depictions of how all of this not only effects Charlie and Nicole, but Henry as well, along with each of their close family members and co-workers.  It’s an uncomfortable situation for everyone.

     Acting nominations are a certainty for Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who have  undeniable chemistry exuding both compassion and tenderness, while also displaying a deep rooted anger caused by years of unhappiness on both sides.  The supporting cast is excellent with the aforementioned Laura Dern providing the stark realities of having to put the gloves on and fight through a legal system filled with red tape and dangerous landmines, all of which directly effect the parties involved.  Ray Liotta provides a startling performance as Charlie’s high priced lawyer who is hired to counter the hard ball tactics his previous attorney seemed woefully unprepared for.  Baumbach’s direction of Azhy Robertson is a clear indication of his ability to get the right performance from a child actor in a film where the role is crucial.  The work by the entire ensemble is some of the best I’ve seen in a year where so many have stood out.

     “Marriage Story” is yet another awards worthy offering from Netflix that like “The Irishman”, deserves to be seen on the big screen where we are accustomed to seeing movie stars in the larger than life format a movie theater provides.  But that’s not to say the film is any less effective, given the power of the performances and the quality of the writing.  The film serves as a poignant and powerful look into a divorcing couple who must bring forth some level of clarity to the situation for their son who is left in the middle of a conflict he didn’t ask for.  The way all of this is presented will no doubt conjure a series of painful memories for anyone who has been through a divorce, but you will also realize life continues to move forward and you may be stronger today as a result of the experience.  I know I am.  GRADE: A