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Marriage Story Portrait of both sides of a messy divorce, for
By Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com November 5, 2019
Observing a splintering union with compassion and expansive
grace, the powerfully acted Marriage Story ranks among writer-director Noah Baumbach's best works.
Johansson and Driver are remarkably, heartbreakingly good in
every scene; showing their characters' journeys to an unflinching camera, letting the gap between them get
wider yet unable, for their son's sake, to completely walk away. --Seattle Times
A stage director and his actor wife struggle through a grueling, coast-to-coast divorce that pushes
them to their personal and creative extremes.
Divorce is described in Noah Baumbach’s masterful “Marriage Story” as like a death without a body. Something has been lost.
There is grieving, anger, denial. In his personal and moving story,
Baumbach captures the insidious nature of divorce, how two well-meaning people who
still care about each other will do things they would never think they would do. Surely, you’re not
the kind of person who would use secrets as a weapon in a divorce case? You wouldn’t turn a child against a
parent to gain an advantage? It’s other people who do stuff like that. With
remarkable grace and compassion for his characters, Baumbach portrays divorce as a great equalizer,
turning us into versions of ourselves we didn’t expect to become.
Baumbach opens with each of his protagonists reading a piece they wrote for a
mediator that highlights the strengths of their partner. So we hear about
the personality of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), someone who listens too long to
strangers, loves playing with her son Henry, cares for her mother and sister a great
deal, and never closes a cabinet. Charlie (Adam Driver) is a focused
theatre director who is remarkably talented and creative. He eats like someone is going to steal his food
from him and is overly competitive. These may seem like nothing details, but they reveal the depth
of specificity throughout “Marriage Story.”
Baumbach is not interested in a film that tells every story of divorce, he wants to get
this one exactly right. Charlie and Nicole are as fully realized as two
people in a domestic drama have been in years.
And, despite some surprising bits of humor, this is very much a domestic drama. There have been a few
separations in the past, but it appears that this one is going to take when Nicole goes to
Los Angeles to film a pilot and takes their son with her. When Charlie goes to visit, she
delivers the papers, as advised by her high-powered attorney Nora (Laura Dern). Charlie soon realizes that Nicole wants to move to L.A. with their
son, and this becomes a major tug-of-war for the two of them. He has to constantly go back and forth
between a play he’s trying to stage in New York and the increasingly rancorous proceedings in L.A. And
everyone starts to fracture and become different versions of the people they were before.
It would have been so easy to make a version of this story in which there’s an obvious villain—put us
on one side and allow us to root for an outcome. What
Baumbach is exploring is the truth that there is no “good” outcome in divorce. There's
rarely a way to make everyone happy.Sure,
Charlie cheated and ignored Nicole’s needs, but she’s also basically trying to steal his
son to the other side of the country. Some will pick a side, but I firmly believe that the movie works better if
you don’t—if you can see the good and evil in both Nicole and
And it’s easy to do that with these stunning performances. Driver and Johansson have both been remarkable before, but this is a new career watermark for both, repaying
Baumbach’s trust in them with emotional and complex work. They’re good throughout, but they each get a “scene” on their own—a background speech from
Nicole when she first goes to Nora and a breathtaking one from
Charlie at a bar near the end—and a scene together, the big fight that we never think
will happen with our partners. The one where we say what we shouldn’t say. The one where things change
The two leads own the film, but Baumbach’s skill with ensemble has become
remarkable over the years, and this is his best work. There are minor parts from great performers like
Merritt Wever, Wallace Shawn, and Ray
Liotta, along with a memorable supporting turn by Alan Alda as Charlie’s attorney, an old soul who has seen
the pain divorce can cause (he’s had three of them). And then there’s Dern, who
continues to stake her claim as one of the best working actresses. Even she gets a “scene”—this one about
the gender inequality in the way women and men are portrayed in divorce—that tears the house down.
In 2005, Baumbach made a film that’s essentially about the divorce of his parents
called “The Squid and the Whale.” That was
from a child’s perspective. Almost 15 years later, it feels like he’s matured to a point where he’s willing to
see the issue from the other side. And whereas that film has some notable anger, this one feels much more
compassionate and understanding of human fallibility—the product of a mature, masterful filmmaker.
What comes through in every frame of this film is that Baumbach
loves Nicole and Charlie. And we come to care about them a great
deal too. When we say goodbye to this pair, we hope that they both find happiness, reaching for life after
the death of divorce.
This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10th.