Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are exceptional in Noah Baumbach's likely Oscar contender, which steps through the rocky aftermath of a marital breakdown.
UPDATE, December 14, 2020: Marriage Story is available to stream via Netflix.
Talk about a bait-and-switch. Marriage Story opens with Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) penning tender, generous prose about each other, explaining why they fell in love and built a life together. As they speak, writer/director Noah Baumbauch pairs their praise with glimpses of the New York-based couple's romantic highlights. But these aren't love letters. Rather, as viewers disconcertingly discover, they're part of a pre-divorce therapy exercise. And while Marriage Story does indeed tell the tale of the pair's marriage, this devastatingly astute and empathetic drama does so within a portrait of their relationship's dying days and its rocky aftermath, particularly focusing on the custody battle over their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson).
'Talk' is a keyword here. It's not by accident that Baumbach starts his 12th film with two hearty, revelatory monologues — the first of many. Chatter has often played a large part in the acclaimed filmmaker's movies, with his characters exposing their woes and shortcomings with a sea of words — and his actors, including the astonishing Johansson and Driver here, benefit from meaty, multifaceted roles as a result. Greenberg's titular grump, Frances Ha's buoyant but directionless twenty-something and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)'s feuding family members all fit the above description. Everyone in While We're Young and Mistress America, too. In his ever-perceptive way, Baumbach hones in on figures whose lives are a shambles, then watches as they natter their way forward — revealing their fragile core while revelling in the minutiae of their existence.
Nicole moves back to Los Angeles and tells her new lawyer (Laura Dern) about frustrations she hasn't dared voice in years: about being a rising Hollywood commodity who married an experimental theatre wunderkind, putting her wants and needs on hold, and feeling like Charlie was always directing their lives. And, as she does so, we don't just hear her story — we also learn about who she is, what she holds dear and where her path might lead, all while we listen and watch. When Charlie tries to juggle making the leap to Broadway for the first time and jetting back-and-forth to LA to see Henry, we go through the same process with him as gets annoyed with Nicole's decisions, pinballs around town, yet hardly makes the most of his time with his son. Marriage Story overflows with these kinds of scenes. The movie's duelling monologues basically continue from the outset, even when Nicole and Charlie are talking to others, or singing (which they both do) — and even when they're not saying a word.
Taking the audience through these moments, and through the couple's clearly tumultuous times, Johansson and Driver are exceptional. It's through their achingly realistic work, and their way with Baumbach's witty and incisive script (and, yes, its words) that Marriage Story comes alive. Between this, his excellent performance in The Report, and standout turns in The Dead Don't Die and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Driver is having a fantastic year (and Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker isn't even out yet). Meanwhile, demonstrating that she's acting's successor to the great Annette Bening, Johansson makes her biggest on-screen impact since the trio of Lucy, Her and Under the Skin. The two aren't just impressive — they make you feel Nicole and Charlie's ups and downs and, especially, the raw uncertainty about their new futures. And, they'll likely earn a string of well-deserved nominations and awards for their efforts, as should Dern as one of the uncompromising figures caught in the middle. (Ray Liotta and Alan Alda are also memorable as the legal eagles in Charlie's corner.)
These are all sharp, layered performances that fill a big screen — perhaps a contentious point given that Marriage Story was funded by Netflix, and plays in cinemas before hitting the streaming platform in a few weeks. It might seem counterintuitive, but Baumbach's intimate, dialogue-heavy films and their accompanying portrayals soak up the light and room that a larger canvas provides, as if the director is putting his scenarios and characters under a magnifying glass. (He is, of course; that's what movies do.) His naturalistic imagery, lensed here by the visually talented Robbie Ryan (I, Daniel Blake, American Honey, The Favourite), also relishes the heftier format, laying bare the everyday interiors that fill the feature's frames, as well as the space that frequently blankets its protagonists. Indeed, in the movie's biggest confrontation, to watch Driver and Johansson go head-to-head against the beige walls of the west coast apartment Charlie doesn't even want to be renting is to witness the heart and soul of Marriage Story. Two people, ordinary surroundings, relatable circumstances, a whole lot of talk and a mess of whirling emotions — that's this shattering but phenomenal drama in a nutshell.
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