Film Review: Marriage Story Revels in the Chaos of Divorce By Refusing to Take Sides

Noah Baumbach's dramedy is equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious

Marriage Story (Netflix)

This review originally ran in September as part of our TIFF 2019 coverage.

The Pitch: New York couple Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress, and Charlie (Adam Driver), a director, are going through a separation. When Nicole moves to Los Angeles to shoot a television pilot, she decides to put her career first and serves Charlie with divorce papers. What initially begins as an amicable split soon becomes an expensive legal procedure as the lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda) become involved, particularly with regard to custody of the couple’s nine year old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).

Love At First Sight: Writer and director Noah Baumbach wisely opens the film with a pair of extended montages revolving around each character and narrated by their respective partners as they digress on their partner’s best qualities. (Got all that?) This is then contrasted by the first full scene, set in couples counseling, which reveals that Nicole and Charlie are getting a divorce and the list was an merely exercise to help them remember why they fell in love in the first place.

This is but one of many clever tools that Baumbach’s script employs to offer insight into the character of both husband and wife, illuminating the stark differences in how they approach the world, as well as their parenting styles. The montages suggest a bounty of love, affection, and mutual admiration, but when it comes time to read their contributions, Nicole can’t even bring herself to say the words aloud.

What’s more, the opening helps to immediately situate their current marital status by revealing how far they’ve shifted: At one time, they were seemingly perfect, but now they can’t even bring themselves to sit next to each other, be it at dinner or on the subway.

Marriage Story (Netflix)

The Storytelling: Much of the film’s power draws from how the story of Nicole and Charlie’s marriage shifts depending on perspective. Nicole looks back on their time together as an exercise in repressing her own desires; she feels that she continually acquiesced to Charlie’s career goals at the expense of her own. Charlie, on the other hand, considers the marriage a series of mutual achievements and shared successes; he fails to see (or even believe) that Nicole was ever unhappy in their marriage and believes that she has retconned her displeasure following the move to LA after she experiences success on her own terms.

In this way, Marriage Story is all about how two parties can share a life, but have two completely different experiences. Charlie struggles mightily during the divorce proceedings because he cannot accept that, for Nicole, the narrative has shifted. He remains firmly rooted in the (past) belief that their lives are in New York; whereas she has already accepted that her (present and future) life is in Los Angeles. As the strife in their no-longer-amicable divorce deepens, the stories that they tell to their respective lawyers also changes: in Charlie’s version of events, Nicole becomes a drinker, while in Nicole’s narrative, Charlie is an adulterer who can’t manage his time well enough to prioritize their son.

Of course all – and none – of these stories are 100% true or false, which is the grey area in which Marriage Story lives. Baumbach’s film is less interested in who is right or wrong than how each party navigates their own story in order to find some semblance of resolution that they can live with. It’s not always easy to watch, but the writer and director’s refusal to make either wife or husband the villain or the hero is arguably the film’s greatest asset. At certain points, the audience is apt to root for one over the other, but in a tale such as this, as Alda’s lawyer comments, the reality is that the divorce proceedings will eventually end and they will all have to live with the results.

Marriage Story (Netflix)

Portrait of a Marriage: Marriage Story is structured like a series of long vignettes that offer a glimpse into Nicole and Charlie’s day-to-day life as they negotiate their feelings, as well as the legalities, of procuring a divorce. Baumbach shoots many scenes as long takes and often in medium shots, which has the effect of replicating the staginess of a theatrical production. It’s a clever move, considering the origins of their marriage, and also a sly commentary on the audience’s experience of watching their divorce play out onscreen.

Portrait of a Divorce: If much of the film is how both parties are individually processing their new reality (often independently of the other), there’s an underlying tension that escalates each time the stakes are elevated in their legal proceedings. It comes to a head in a third act verbal smackdown when Nicole arrives at Charlie’s rental apartment to try and work out their issues without their legal representatives present to muddy the water.

What starts as a mostly civil conversation quickly escalates into a full-blown meltdown as the unfiltered truth about how they felt about the marriage finally comes out. Initially, it’s merely uncomfortable to watch the pair hurl insults at one another, and then it becomes something altogether worse when their emotions get the better of them. Each one says some truly reprehensible things to the other (ie: things you can’t take back), which has the effect of moving the argument past the point of catharsis and into simply painful vengeance territory. It’s incredibly raw and, to anyone who has ever loved someone passionately, there’s a shocking realism to it that’s legitimately discomforting.

Overall both actors are exceptional, but Driver’s borderline physical breakdown in this scene is especially impressive. Baumbach’s use of long takes and medium shots help to maintain an emotional distance on the audience’s behalf, while the bland tan and taupe color scheme of the room and its bare furnishings are so visually unobtrusive that they are tantamount to white noise. This helps to ensure that the actors and their performances are the sole focal point of the scene, which is the high point of the film (and its emotional climax).

Marriage Story (Netflix)

Comedy Now: Thankfully, Baumbach knows well enough that a film like Marriage Story needs some levity to balance out its dramatic scenes. As expected, Dern is a comedic delight as Nicole’s lawyer, Nora Fanshaw, a woman as likely to shred you to ribbons with a word as she is to take off her heels and perch on the couch with a client. Liotta plays into his storied persona as a go-for-the-jugular shark and Wallace Shawn, portraying a member of Charlie’s NY theatre troop, is a charismatic old perv.

It’s Nicole’s actress sister Cassie (Merrit Wever) and kooky mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty), however, who are the secret weapons of Marriage Story. There’s an early scene where Nicole asks the pair to help her serve Charlie the divorce papers and it’s a masterclass of neuroticism, physical hijinks, and wit. Cassie’s outrage that her mother is still talking to her ex-husband, and her desire to “practice” handing off the divorce papers, which prompts an exasperated Nicole to exclaim “This isn’t a bit!”, is particularly hilarious.

Song and Dance: Finally, it should be noted that both leads get to showcase their singing chops as each one delivers a song (Driver) and dance (Johansson). Surprisingly enough, Driver ain’t half bad.

The Verdict: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a well-balanced dramatic comedy whose greatest strength is its refusal to pick sides or label one party good or bad. Johansson and Driver both give strong performances, while the use of supporting characters for comedic levity is smartly executed. While the content of the film isn’t happy per se, audiences will find much to like.

Where’s It Playing? The divorce drama begins airing its dirty laundry in limited release on November 6th and on Netflix come December 6th.