“Marriage Story” is an expertly written and directed story about a couple suffering through divorce. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give career-best performances, and Noah Baumbach’s script gives them plenty of chances to shine. It plays like an old-fashioned Hollywood drama; it allows events to unfold at a deliberate pace and explores all the avenues of heartbreak, deceit, and the warped reality of the legal system. There’s no clear-cut villain – Baumbach smartly explores the truth that there is no victorious outcome in divorce, despite what the lawyers may think. A successful case for them could still be a miserable conclusion for their client. It’s hard to pick a side between Charlie and Nicole, because both of them have deplorable traits that end up sabotaging their marriage. Baumbach walks a fine line to maintain empathy for both parties in the central conflict, and does so with complete impartiality. “Marriage Story” is an absolute triumph in storytelling.
I haven’t been the biggest fan of Adam Driver outside of “The Last Jedi,” but he really displays his acting chops alongside his co-stars in this film. Will it be Driver or Phoenix that lands the best actor Oscar for the year? All signs point towards Phoenix, but Driver certainly deserves it. Johansson gives the best performance by any actress in 2019. Laura Dern will undoubtedly win best supporting actress, playing the lawyer you hope to never have to face. Ray Liotta plays her counterpart as Charlie’s divorce lawyer, and the two play off each other exceptionally in a standout courtroom scene.
I remember something my history professor said out of the blue in one of his lectures. He said, “The idiosyncrasies that you find cute when you start dating turn into the most damned annoying things when you get older.” That can pretty much apply to any relationship we find ourselves in. At the start of “Marriage Story,” we find Charlie and Nicole in a therapy session, with Charlie reading a piece of paper that lists all of the attributes he loves about Nicole. Nicole refuses to read hers because she is either embarassed or infuriated, or perhaps both. The things they once loved about each other have becomes the things they hate, and their ambitions are driving them apart. While we initially root for them to reconcile, as time goes on we realize that they were never actually right for each other.
The central conflict stems from the couple’s son, whom both parents are fighting for custody over. Much of that battle is based on location, and Charlie seems to be helplessly naive when it comes to the structure of the law. “We’re a New York family,” he says, as if that is supposed to cement where the the family’s roots are. His first visit with a divorce lawyer leaves him shocked and appalled by how inhumane the process is, and he only conjures more disgust and rage as Nicole and her lawyer execute their strategy to beat him in court. The tension between Charlie and Nicole climaxes in a thrilling argument that leaves both parties (and us) in an emotional low. Insults are thrown, walls are damaged…some of the best acting of the year lies in that one scene.
While love may be put under stress in “Marriage Story,” it is ultimately not a story about destruction or loss, but about change. Both Charlie and Nicole are narcissistic in their own right, and yearn to break free of each other’s grips to travel their own paths. Sure, there is a lot of stress and yelling, and some of the visuals are annoyingly on-the-nose (like a gate-closing scene), but there remains a sense of humanity and optimism. Charlie and Nicole may have moments of disgust towards one another, but at the end of the day they don’t want to make each other’s lives hell, or completely deny access to their son. What starts as grief and turns into hate ends up as forgiveness, and the final scene will likely leave you with a smile. Also, Adam Driver sings “Being Alive.” Just imagine that for a second.