Writer/Director Noah Baumbach has made a living making unique, personal films. With "Marriage Story," he captures the rawness of love, family and friendship lost like few others have been able to do. He examines with authenticity what a family looks like in the days and years that follow "Happily Ever After."
"Marriage Story" nearly is indescribable in how close to home it hits. It's the most powerful film of 2019, featuring two central performances that are so awe-inspiring, you would have to be an automaton devoid of humanity not to feel the impact of this film. Yet it wraps up too cleanly given the ground it covers. Let me say off the top that that's a quibble to an otherwise thought-provoking and wide-ranging film.
Based partially on Baumbach's own failed marriage to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, it's the story about Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). Once a playwright and his muse, Charlie and Nicole fall hard for each other, and the film opens with a montage of their "good times" spent together. Over the top of this montage is their voices, reading letters about what it is they love(d) about one another. It perfectly drops us into their relationship, but you pick up on a few key things that also foreshadow that they have different viewpoints on what they've experienced together.
Nicole has basically "sacrificed" her own dreams that exist out in California so that they could chase Charlie's back in New York City. They have a son together, and seem happy enough. But time has a funny way of changing things. Their relationship slowly devolves, Nicole eventually takes their son and moves to California, and they enter into what seems to be amicable separation proceedings.
To Charlie's surprise however, he is served up divorce papers. What began as a "let's keep the lawyers out of this" soon turns into an ugly, horrendous breakdown of communication and family. Nicole brings in the high-profile divorce lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), while Charlie explores his options, first turning to equally high-profile lawyer, Jay (Ray Liotta) and then to the older, simpler, more compassionate attorney, Bert (Alan Alda).
Men and women may experience this movie in different ways, but with over half of marriages ending in divorce, it's hard to imagine that most people wouldn't be able to relate in someway to what each character experiences. As divorces have a a way of doing, the focus is "all about the kid," but ends up being not at all about the kid the messier things get. Baumbach does a wonderful job of portraying how this may impact a young, innocent child caught in the cross-fire from loved ones on both sides of the battlefield.
"Marriage Story" also manages to be about so much more than the couple, as it exposes larger, systemic issues that exist in the world of divorce law. The chips are stacked against men more often than not, but Charlie's not exactly in the clear of any wrong-doing. Another filmmaker might portray this as a dramatic, courtroom drama, but Baumbach manages to make this feel different than films that have come before. Even a courtroom scene - the way it's handled, shot and edited with Baumbach's guidance - feels fresh and new, somehow, someway.
If all of this sounds depressing, it is...however "Marriage Story" is filled with laughter as well. It also contains an incredibly powerful score by the legendary Randy Newman, whose music seems to kick in just like memories do in the heads of our characters, at the most curious of times, reminding us of the earlier times when life seemed manageable.
And OMG, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Adam Driver goes from "that guy from Star Wars" or "that interesting-looking actor from all those small indie films" to a guy that has now broken out as perhaps the next Marlon Brando. HE IS THAT GOOD. Not be outmatched, Johansson too is a shoe-in during awards season, and the supporting cast is just as great.
Look for "Marriage Story" in theaters for a limited time, before it lands on Netflix on December 6th. You'll need to see it: It's required viewing to fill out your Oscar Ballot this year, as it is simply one of the very best of 2019...even with that too-tidy ending.
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance.
Run Time: 2 hours 16 minutes.
Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda.
Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach ("The Meyerowitz Stories," "Mistress America," "Frances Ha," "Greenberg," "The Squid and the Whale," "Kicking and Screaming").
"Marriage Story" is in select theaters on November 27th and available on Netflix on December 6th, 2019.
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