Review: Marriage Story
I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the biggest fan of director Noah Baumbach. I found his work in both The Squid and The Whale and While We Were Young enjoyable yet completely forgettable. His work in his recent Netflix pieces has had the same effect, yet to lesser degrees of enjoyment, with The Meyerowitz Stories doing little to bring about the effective nature of his storytelling talents and prose. Marriage Story sets out to prove the range Baumbach can bring to the directing chair, and the evidently lucky mixture of great casting and even better writing comes into its own here, with a beautiful display of a family falling apart.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star alongside one another as Charlie and Nicole respectively, a director and actor living in New York with their young son Henry. Their idyllic lifestyle is shattered by the various breakdowns and trivial matters that plague just about any and every marriage. At first deciding to approach the situation amicably, Marriage Story looks to showcase how desperate people spiral and panic when they don’t believe they’ll receive what truly makes them happy. Supported by a beautiful supporting cast including the likes of the great Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Laura Dern, Julie Hagerty and Wallace Shawn, Marriage Story manages to blend deep, thoughtful ideas and concepts with a slightly humorous and dramatic twinge.
It’s a mixture that only Baumbach could deliver, especially given how focused he is on perfecting that aspect of his craft. He’s been making similar movies for the better half of a decade now, and Marriage Story feels like it has many connotations and themes shared by his earlier work in the Jeff Daniels starring The Squid and The Whale. While the two certainly differ in key areas, there are striking moments of brief resemblance between the two. It takes the infectious highs of his earlier work and injects them into a believably strong performance from our leading cast members.
Under the assumption that cracking out one great leading performance with The Report wouldn’t be enough to secure an Oscar nomination, Driver presents us a pivotal starring role as Charlie. Here we can see him working at his best, he slips into the role of an aggravated, worried and desperate father trying to stay in contact with his son and family while he balances work on the other side of the country. It’s a great mix, Baumbach gives it the steady camera work needed to bring this to life, while Driver is the perfect choice for quite honestly one of the best performances of the year.
It’s not only Driver delivering a career best performance though, with Johansson too bringing us yet another example of her fine work as a leading actor. Nicole comes off, at first, as a venomous character, we see how things turn out from the perspective of Charlie for much of the movie. In actual fact, every character in this film is out for themselves in an intoxicating portrayal of how horrible people can be sometimes.
Baumbach’s work here manages to dissect innocence and guilt with relative compassion and genuine ease. The only nice character throughout is that of Bert Spitz (Alda), an old school lawyer that believes in presenting only the truth with no spin on the facts. That just won’t cut it in law though, and we see Charlie’s frustrations with his wife after she goes against everything he believed her to be. On the flipside of that, we get to see the breakout reasons for why his wife brings in a lawyer and complicates matters, Johansson sells these scenes incredibly well. Neither viewpoint is justifiable, and the film boils down into an escalation that presides over retaliation and shady dealings with lawyers who barely know anything of the people they look to represent.
With two tremendous leading performances, a script this good and a directed piece from Baumbach that finally looks to give his work the quality I was expecting, Marriage Story is a beautifully crafted piece of film that pools together some incredible talent and makes it work with ease. Two energetic leading performances from Driver and Johansson help us dive into a world that many may have already experienced or be experiencing right now. It’s a harsh look at how people that were once intimately close can break down into lying, cheating and backstabbing all for the sake of their child. It’s quite beautiful, yet also a sickening blend of unlikeable characters and harsh realities.