by Alan Yudman
Watching a marriage end is never enjoyable on screen. You wind up rooting for one side or the other, you feel horrible for what is happening to the family. Watching Noah Baumbach’s wonderful MARRIAGE STORY is as close to an enjoyable experience you can have given the circumstances.
Anyone who knows Baumbach’s story knows that this is semi-autobiographical about his marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh. Adam Driver is Charlie, a somewhat successful and respected theater director. His wife is Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress who believes she has given up stardom in Hollywood to follow Charlie to New York.
That is the major source of tension in the movie. Charlie seems unaware of Nicole’s distress over her situation. She acts in his experimental theater and raises their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson). But as we learn nearly right away, she feels frustrated and unfulfilled. We don’t see the marriage falling apart, except for a few flashbacks. Mostly this is two people who were once in love navigating the stormy waters of divorce. Charlie seems so self-involved he doesn’t seem to notice Nicole doesn’t want this to be friendly. She gets advice on the set of her new TV show that she should hire Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a kind of benevolent shark. She is therapist for her client and attack dog when it comes to getting the best for Nicole. Charlie is forced to hire a lawyer, first seeing Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), a stereotypical nightmare of a divorce attorney. It’s not what Charlie wants so he goes to see Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) a genial but ultimately ineffective attorney.
All this points to how different Charlie and Nicole see the process. Charlie thinks they will live in New York and Nicole will have none of that because her career is in California. They are on opposite coasts and opposite sides of this battle… both separated by 3,000 miles. It all comes to a head in an amazing scene in Charlie’s L.A. apartment where they have it out for the last time. It is an incredibly raw and emotional scene that surely lead to both Driver and Johansson being nominated in their respective acting categories.
MARRIAGE STORY is great, but it’s not unique or remarkable in any real way. The score by Randy Newman is perfect and sets the right melancholy tone. Baumbach’s script and directing are perfectly solid, but unspectacular. The skill here is knowing you have and incredible cast (3 nominations for Dern, Driver and Johansson) and just setting them up to be the best they can be. I dreaded watching this movie before I saw it. But, I’m glad I did because MARRIAGE STORY is an example of good storytelling and solid if unspectacular filmmaking.