Film Review – Marriage Story
Director and screenwriter Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a film that revolves around the dissolution of a marriage, not the story of it. Divorce is, unfortunately, commonplace in our modern society, but that does not mean that it is a not sad occurrence, one that involves many traumatic and life-disrupting events. It becomes more serious when there is a child involved.
Charlie (Adam Driver) is a theatre director in New York City, and his wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), is his star, his muse. They have an eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Their marriage is already heading towards divorce when we meet them both, but we are introduced Charlie and Nicole through the positive things they list about each other. It is all downhill from there. The meat of the story kicks off when Nicole moves back to her home of Los Angeles to film a pilot, and she takes Henry with her. Being back in LA and its different culture from NYC, she decides to get a lawyer to continue the process even though Charlie and Nicole decided already not to involve lawyers. Nicole uses the services of well-known divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), who embodies just about everything one could think of a successful LA lawyer. To say that Charlie is blindsided by Nicole’s actions is an understatement, and the disintegration of their friendly relationship begins.
This film and Netflix are banking on an emotional response to it, so much so that I was given a branded pack of tissues before the screening. What is not expected is that there are those of us who have not been divorced or are not children of divorce. While I can empathize with the relationship that is being presented to me on screen, it does not produce a visceral, emotional reaction. That is not to say that its actors didn’t do their jobs outstandingly, but I have no real-world experience with divorce save having seen what it has done to some of my friends. I had the same reaction to Blue Valentine that I did to Marriage Story. Those viewers who have been through this experience may have a completely different response.
The film’s trailers present Marriage Story as an equal tale of both of the main characters. However, the film is skewed in favor of Charlie’s story. While I agree that Charlie’s story is more complicated with him trying to work things out while still residing in New York City, the film increasingly makes Nicole the “bad guy” in the situation, especially in regards to Henry. Noah Baumbach is a divorced man with a child from that relationship, and I am sure that has informed this film and possibly why it focuses more on the husband. Perhaps writing this film was a kind of therapy for Baumbach, dealing with possible leftover feelings of regret, hurt, and anger, but he has also shown that there is a light at the end of the divorce tunnel.
Having just last week reviewed The Report, Adam Driver appears again in Marriage Story but a wholly different character. With both films fresh in my mind, it further illustrates the acting range of Driver, who, for most of the world is only Kylo Ren in the Star Wars films. Here we see Driver as a husband, father, and theatre director all of which combine to give one of the most earnest performances of his career. Two scenes stand out: the climactic argument between Charlie and Nicole and a quiet moment between Charlie and his son. The scenes are different, but both deal with the emotion of loss. If the audience is going to become emotional, it is likely in these two moments.
Marriage Story aims to be a sucker-punch of emotions, but Noah Baumbach has negated that some of the audience has naivety in regards to divorce. While it is a dramatic take on what happens to a family during divorce, with some humorous moments, it fails to achieve what it ultimately wants. Had it not been marketed as a tear-jerker and an emotional rollercoaster, it may have impressed me more. I found it more one-sided than it should have been. With an excellent supporting cast of Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Wallace Shawn, Merritt Weaver, and Julie Hagerty, it is still a good film.