It seems like today’s film landscape is one of special effects, large budgets, and unnecessary sequels. Most of the movies that are widely talked about seem to be those that are bombastic and have nothing to do with actual society, even if they sometimes have messages that comment on it. This makes it all the more refreshing when a film like Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story comes along–one that portrays humanity at its most raw and realistic state. Every minute of this narrative feels like spying on real-life people who are actually struggling with an ordeal that many can connect with: divorce. This unflinching look at the ramifications that come with divorce not only shows both the male and female sides of a breakup with pinpoint accuracy, but it comments on the flawed legal system that can often make the process harder than it needs to be.
The film starts with an ingenious opening sequence in which we are introduced to the main couple (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) through their respective letters that state the little details of each other they appreciate. This does multiple things that set the stage for the events to come: it establishes the light-hearted but down-to-earth tone that the movie carries, gives the audience a chance to get to know both Charlie and Nicole before their split blinds the rest of their lives, and portrays the inherent happiness of the couple to make the latter half of the film emotionally devastating. Even if the rest of the movie tanks (which it doesn’t), Baumbach could win an Academy Award for the first ten minutes alone. From there, the audience is dropped into the life of a family trying to stay stable through one of the hardest stages in any person’s lifetime. They must remain responsible for their young son together, but the legal issues that come with filing for divorce are complicating matters.
Baumbach writes and directs each scene to perfection: he knows exactly when to hold a shot for minutes on end to immerse the audience in honest moments, while also cutting during scenes where emotions are being blocked. His observance on the male and female perspectives of a relationship is spot-on. Marriage Story is one of the most revealing films about modern relationships ever produced, and it will make all viewers think harder about how they treat situations with another person in mind. Even though it would seem easy to take a side in this separation, Baumbach remains unbiased throughout. His intention is not to present a Twilight-esque choice–it is to examine and critique the societal norms that made the couple act this way to begin with. It may be easier for viewers of the respective genders to relate to the struggles that will reflect their own (men will relate to Charlie’s perspective while women will relate to Nicole’s), but everyone will most likely empathise and care for both people regardless. By the end, I just wished for happiness in their relationship even though it appears to be near impossible.
On top of the impeccable writing and direction is some of the finest acting of the last couple of years from Johansson and Driver. Both of them convey their individual struggles with such sincerity that it is near impossible to not feel emotionally caught up in either story. Johansson shines in the first half of the movie, where her side of the marriage is given the spotlight. She reveals everything that had been bothering her about the relationship in an extended scene with her newfound attorney (Laura Dern), and it is one of the most engaging and stunning scenes of acting I had laid eyes on in some time. And then, as if the bar hadn’t been set high enough, the movie outdoes itself with each following scene. It takes a while for Driver and Johansson to erupt into an argument, but once it finally happens it makes for one of the most magnificent and devastating moments in some time. Driver sells this argument in a way that only he could, and goes on to knock it out of the park in the last third of the movie. Two scenes–one where he is reading a letter and the other where he sings a piece from the musical Company–are both excellent cases for why he should win an Oscar for his work here.
Not a minute passes that feels as if it is unearned; Baumbach perfectly formats Marriage Story to fit the stages that a couple passes when growing further and further apart. The supporting cast also does a great job of portraying the cogs in the legal machine that make up the divorce process–Dern and Alan Alda in particular. The courtroom scenes–where the lawyers are arguing for Charlie and Nicole–are difficult to watch because their relationship is so clearly ripping apart in a way that neither of them wanted for each other. Divorce is an unfair process on all parties involved, and Baumbach seems to know firsthand the heartbreak that is caused from the difficulties of the system.
Marriage Story is honest in a manner that few other modern films are. It feels more like a documentary than a Hollywood-produced film, and the home-video style of cinematography from Robbie Ryan hits home that feeling. Not being able to relate to this situation won’t stop audience-members from feeling the exact same emotions as those who will relate because Baumbach guides viewers through a distinctly human experience. Netflix is killing it as of late, and their decision to finance original products from great filmmakers is a sublime one. Marriage Story is an endlessly rewarding experience and one of the best films of 2019.
I give Marriage Story an A+.