SYNOPSIS: An incisive and compassionate portrait of a marriage breaking up and a family staying together.
You may think from its opening that you’re in for a love story – what with the husband-and-wife couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) taking turns to enumerate the other’s good qualities – but you’ll soon realise that both are simply doing their homework for a divorce mediation exercise.
Oh yes, ‘Marriage Story’ is perhaps more accurately a divorce story, seeing as how it deals with the separation of Charlie and Nicole who have been married 10 years and share an eight-year-old son named Henry (Azhy Robertson). After watching the then young and up-and-coming Charlie perform at a play, Nicole had fallen in love with him, and decided to forgo her promising Hollywood career to pursue theatre in New York. Now, Charlie is the director of an avant-garde company whose production of ‘Electra’ is Broadway-bound, while Nicole is part of the same company and his long-time leading lady.
Yet Nicole is hardly satisfied with the state of their marriage – not only does she miss her hometown of Los Angeles, she finds her own creative instincts stifled by Charlie’s artistic ego. So when she lands the lead role of a TV pilot shooting in LA, she grabs the opportunity to move back with Henry. Charlie is obviously displeased with her decision, and yet because he is unable to comprehend just how she has been feeling all this while, he is also unable to understand just why she would give up the troupe for a TV project that is no more than an environmental dystopian piece of cheese.
For the first hour, writer-director Noah Baumbach illustrates the push-and-pull between Charlie and Nicole as they navigate this newfound territory in their married life. While she is clear why she had initiated the separation, it is not so easy or straightforward to just erase away 10 years together, and there are simple yet significant moments which show just how much their lives have been intertwined. On the other hand, Charlie thinks at first that they can go on pretty much like before, but with each flight to-and-fro New York and LA, as well as every concomitant hotel stay, realises that the life he had grown too self-absorbed in is slowly but surely slipping away.
As should be the case for such stories, the best parts in ‘Marriage Story’ are the small day-to-day moments that resonate like real life, including an extended sequence showing how being able to celebrate Halloween twice with either parent separately isn’t as fun as it sounds. Most significantly, these details are observed with both humour and heart by Baumbach, and played beautifully by Driver and Johansson as they traverse through anger, confusion, insecurity and vulnerability. Both their characters will inevitably feel the rug being pulled from underneath their feet, and both actors deliver sharp yet sensitive performances.
Baumbach’s screenplay is a work of true art, especially as it traverses from domestic drama to legal procedural. Much as both had earlier agreed to keep the lawyers out, Nicole upsets that understanding by hiring the high-powered attorney Nora (Laura Dern), leaving Charlie little choice but to engage his own litigator. Though at first Charlie goes with the avuncular Bert (Alan Alda), Charlie eventually decides that he needs a stronger counsel to fight his case against Nora, though bringing the high-priced barracuda Jay (Ray Liotta) only makes things even more complicated for both of them.
Here, Baumbach takes aim at the legal industry set up to exploit such unfortunate circumstances, especially as each and every single detail of Charlie and Nicole’s is twisted by their respective lawyers to give them the best possible advantage at securing a ‘win’ over the other, even if it means distorting and disfiguring little foibles that used to be appreciated as each other’s eccentricities. It is as absurd as it is tragic, and watching how the proceedings take their toll on both of them is truly heartbreaking; in particular, an unannounced visit by Nicole to Charlie’s place in LA ends up with a scorched-earth argument which makes for one of the most emotionally charged scenes you’ll see this year.
Whether and how much Baumbach has based the film on his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh is anybody’s guess, but there is no doubt that ‘Marriage Story’ is one of, if not his best, films. There is no melodrama here, just an honest, raw and incisive account of how two people united by the bond of marriage can survive an uncoupling driven through the grind of courtroom divorce proceedings, while shielding their child from the fallout. Driver and Johansson are perfectly cast next to each other, supported by a first-rate supporting ensemble, and they elevate what is already first-rate material into the most poignant story of a marriage you’ll see this year.
Review by Gabriel Chong