“I like to begin with a note of positivity.”
Marriage Story – a drama chock-full of the kind of comedy born from psychological unease and physical discomfort and emotional unrest – invites us into the joint uncoupling of two people who love each other deeply but ultimately want different things out of life. Who met at point A but have departed to separate point B’s. And while the heartbreak here can be a bittersweet pill to swallow, the film navigates personal tragedy in such a palatable way that you practically dissolve into the story, sticking around to feel something instead of nothing. With profound writing, sublime direction, and a few awards worthy performances in tow, Marriage Story earns its way into the ranks of 2019’s very best films.
Some films seem so determined to be emotional roller coasters. Marriage Story has a calmness to it though, so still in a busy New York City, and the ups and the downs of this relationship aren’t at all concerned with highs and lows. It’s a subway ride, quite appropriately, where we’re able to get off the train at such very specific spots in this story. Before the long haul though, Marriage Story introduces us to theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and his marital muse Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) through thoughtful, loving, achingly positive descriptions of their partner. Charlie appreciates her playfulness, her ability to listen, her skill with haircuts, that she admits what she doesn’t know, and how she can open jars even his massive mitts can’t untwist. “She’s my favorite actress,” he says.
Conversely, Nicole admires Charlie’s determination. That he came from nothing, eats like a cave man yet dresses like he’s been somewhere, relishes “all the things you’re supposed to hate” about being a dad, can make family out of friends and employees, and that he’s mostly clear about what he wants. It’s so vitally important to Marriage Story that the film chooses to begin in a place of mutual respect – through what we find out to be unstated love letters – instead of a benign landscape destined for an abrupt separation, and that it doesn’t intentionally take sides along the way is all for the better. The detailed introduction actually reminded me of the opening to Pixar’s 2009 film Up, albeit with a smaller swath of time and more lines to say. It’s remarkable how quickly we come to know them as individuals and as a couple, and that their introductions are the mere tip of the iceberg below.
Like most soured relationships, Charlie and Nicole don’t go separate ways because of one big moment, but more so because of all the slowly accumulated little things along the way. He likes their life in New York; he’s comfortable in the chaos. She wants to press play on career opportunities she paused to star in his plays and to have their son Henry (Azhy Robertson); Hollywood calls to her. It helps that Nicole’s mom Sandra (Julie Hagerty) and sister Cassie (Merritt Weaver) are still in her hometown of LA. So as their theater run for an acclaimed play comes to an end, and as Charlie prepares to take it to Broadway without his leading lady both on-stage and off, Nicole flies out to star in a television pilot. She wants space to grow, and as she’s often reminded, LA has plenty more of that to offer than NY.
Marriage Story doesn’t agree with the saying that, “distance makes the heart grow fonder.” Thankfully though, writer/director Noah Baumbach doesn’t try to supplement fonder with colder either, nor does he instill his typical quirks. Charlie and Nicole still love each other, just in a different way, leading to their separation and a few more memorable performances from those playing the divorce attorneys. Nicole’s lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) is the kind who gets clients on referrals, Charlie’s humble first option Bert (Alan Alda) would be found in the yellow pages, and his final fixer Jay (Ray Liotta) is the type you’d find on billboards and benches and buses. Yet even when things get somewhat ugly, there’s always a mutual respect and an appreciation between the two. He’ll take a look at her malfunctioning electrical box. She’ll still trim his shaggy hair. They’re doing the best they can for Henry and for themselves.
While it might be called another Kramer vs. Kramer with modern updates, Marriage Story is a more loving, mutual depiction of divorce. Both parties are frustrating, kind, occasionally even cruel. This isn’t some kind of flag you blindly pledge your allegiances to. These are people who have layers, who feel betrayed and who’ve been hurt by a human they willingly signed up with for a lifetime subway ride from there to here and everywhere in between. But at some point they just had to exit onto different platforms, and some of the most beautiful scenes occur later on in the film, when the inevitable has happened and these two individuals form a new kind of bond. Elevated by sharp editing, a melancholic score from Randy Newman, and two of the most invested and emotional leading performances of the year, Marriage Story features one powerhouse scene after another, culminating in one of the very best films of 2019. I laughed, fell into deep thought, and even cried four times. What more could you want from a movie?
“He needs to know that I fought for him.”
Rating: 5 out of 5