Watching Marriage Story is a transcendent experience. I don’t know how someone puts such an intensely personal story on the screen, but Noah Baumbach has done it in a way that pierces your heart. I’ve never been through a divorce but I feel the pain his leading characters endure—and inflict on each other—as if I were in their shoes.
The film is called Marriage Story because a) I suppose Divorce Story would be off-putting, and b) it is the story of a marriage and how it dissolves right before our eyes.
Scarlett Johansson plays an actress who has been married to self-absorbed experimental-theater director Adam Driver for a decade. She has been his muse and leading lady in the cloistered world they inhabit. They have an adorable young son, but she is suffocating and has reached the end of her rope. What’s more, she has been offered the leading role in a TV pilot that will be filming in Los Angeles. That’s her cue to take their boy cross-country and file for divorce. He can’t believe this is actually happening. Her move requires him to follow her to L.A. and deal with divorce proceedings in a town he intensely dislikes.
Both husband and wife would like to settle their separation amicably but once she hires a lawyer he is forced to follow suit. Lawyering up means that both parties lose control of the negotiation process; that’s where the story deepens and darkens.
Yet again I encourage you to avoid trailers and clips from this film, which I was fortunate to see early on at the Telluride Film Festival. There are so many great moments and bravura scenes that I’d hate to have known about going in.
Casting is crucial to any movie but this one soars because of its exceptional ensemble. Johansson has never been better, and Driver once again proves his versatility. They are at turns loving, cruel, cunning and exasperated, caught up in a woeful situation they had hoped to avoid. The stars are supported by Laura Dern in an Oscar-worthy performance as a high-priced lawyer with a killer attitude toward this case—and men in general. Alan Alda is perfect as a family lawyer who’s a mensch but nobody’s fool. Attorney Ray Liotta is more in Dern’s class and fully up to the challenge of dealing with her. Merritt Weaver is quite funny as Johansson’s sister and Julie Hagerty brings warmth and humor to her role as Johansson’s supportive mother.
The environments in which this story takes place say more than dialogue ever could, a tribute to production designer Jade Healy and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, as well as Baumbach himself.
The writer-director who made such an impressive debut with The Squid and the Whale has again tapped into a family dynamic and created a brilliant movie, one of the year’s best. It’s painfully real but not pessimistic. The finale is beautifully realized and offers a credible summation of everything that has preceded it. Marriage Story is a must-see.