Marriage Story, the new film written and directed by Noah Baumbach, is simply one of the best films of the decade. Its title recalls that sappy tearjerker of the seventies, Love Story, which featured a sentimental, quirky, and ultimately tragic relationship between two young types who start off as opposites. Marriage Story features the separation and divorce of two young creative types (he’s an avant garde theatre director and she’s an actor) called Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). They have a young son, Henry, who becomes the focus of custody proceedings as well as other matters such as where Henry and Nicole will live – in L.A. where her family resides or New York, the place Charlie has always thought of as their home. It evokes that other seventies classic, Kramer vs. Kramer.
There’s something akin to the seventies movie aesthetic in Baumbach’s work – there seems to be a mixture of Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet at work in his choice for naturalistic performances, the echoes of modern urban life, and the use of hand-held camera movements. However, this film is also immaculately lit, shot, and edited (apparently Baumbach pushed back the release date so he could continue working on the editing). Marriage Story is available for viewing on Netflix but you should really go to the theatre to view it. It’s so strong that every scene, every moment, is fraught with tension, surprise, drama, humour, or as is often the case, all of these. Films like this don’t come along very often, even from this director; it’s easily Baumbach’s greatest work to date.
The opening which teases us through the tense daily routines of this loving couple struggling to hold their relationship together as they go through rehearsals, rituals, routines involving their son and co-workers, is incredible. Set to voiceovers that in turn talk about what Nicole and Charlie like about each other (their marriage counseling therapist has instructed them to write down what they admire so as to start the sessions on a note of positivity), the astounding montage that introduces their lives and world is worthy of Scorsese, except it’s naturalistic and shot with hand-held camera. There’s such a precision and deft accomplishment to the filmmaking that you’re constantly stunned and mesmerized. Your heart’s forever in your throat and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s a tonic for the removed detachment we’re used to – it reminds you of why you fell in love with film in the first place.
Unfortunately, the marriage counseling ends before it begins because Nicole can’t bear to read what she’s written (though we are privy to it through voiceover) and feels frustrated that Charlie and the therapist seem to be in agreement in opposing her. She moves to L.A. to work on a fantasy-themed TV show with young Henry and they live with her mother (the wonderfully overbearing, piping-voiced Julie Hagerty). Originally meant to be a temporary move for the purposes of the show, Nicole’s anger and frustration at Charlie, her feelings of being stifled by his career and demands, and his lack of consideration all grow; setting things in motion and leading to increasingly catastrophic ends. Whereas they were still attached at the beginning of the film, intending the separation to go as smoothly as possible and agreeing to separate amicably without the use of lawyers, it soon becomes clear that Charlie and Nicole’s relationship can no longer function in this way. These are highly sympathetic characters doing things that complicate their own lives as much as each other’s.
When Nicole enlists a high powered divorce lawyer played by Laura Dern, Charlie is forced to respond with legal representation of his own. He bounces between a savage blowhard played by Ray Liotta and a gentle, sympathetic, but ultimately ineffective family lawyer played by the aging Alan Alda. Everybody is immaculate in their role, even Johansson whom I’ve often found hard to accept as a dramatic lead. She immerses herself in this. The only weak link is the actress who plays Nicole’s sister (Merritt Wever – her nervousness always seems forced) but it’s a less-than-minor cavil. Sometimes I wonder if Adam Driver deserves all the high profile roles he receives, but he’s incredible in this – he forgoes his rumbling pah-pah-pah splutter for a tightly controlled yet extremely emotive performance that immediately draws you in. Unlike the millennial douchebag types he’s played in previous Baumbach outings such as Frances Ha and While We’re Young, he portrays a young man nobly contending with very deep forces and obstacles that assail his idea of what life should be. Though his character is more at fault than hers for the proceedings before the film starts, the film seems predisposed towards Charlie’s POV as he deals with harrowing development after development. He tries his best to fly between New York and L.A., spend time with his son, navigate the counter-intuitive twists and turns of the legal process, and come to terms with the fact that the trust and care he once thought of as existing between him and his wife is dissipating and turning into something much more acrimonious than either of them anticipated. The issues in their personal relationship aren’t as cut-and-dried as I’ve mentioned – we are able to sympathize with both characters simultaneously, agonize with Nicole as she questions her own conflicted impulses, and become frustrated with Charlie as things never go as planned. It’s a film that has many things going for it and it balances these elements with a graceful perfection.
It’s not a cool, detached film. Nor an ironic, self-important film. It’s filmed with warm emotions, heartbreak, and the thousand-and-one stings of a ruptured, unfulfilled life. It’s not just about a relationship that doesn’t work or the tender agony of having loved and lost – it’s about divorce, a very real thing, and it’s a film whose bones seem made of real life, wisdom, and acute insight. It’s like discovering that period of Woody Allen’s oeuvre for the first time where he shifts from the earlier snappier comedies into those dramas that were still funny but somehow uniquely poignant – like watching Hannah and Her Sisters, but without the affected Allen dialogue. Of course, Allen was really channeling Bergman but Marriage Story doesn’t end with the shattered psychological ruin of a Bergman film. It looks at the aftermath of the divorce and offers some slight hope, not for the principals rekindling their marriage but rekindling their care and kindness towards one another. After all, this is a film where the characters around the principals seem more hell-bent on the finality of their divorce and the crushing excision of their bond than Charlie and Nicole ever are. Don’t get me wrong – I like much of Baumbach’s previous work – but Marriage Story leaves it all in the dust. It’s the work of a mature, assured filmmaker and one I’d like to see again, soon. It’s one of those rare films that one can only talk about in superlatives and urge friends in hushed whispers to go see immediately. I’m sure it’ll earn Baumbach his first Oscar among other accolades.