Film review, by Jason Day, of Marriage Story, the romantic comedy about a marriage breaking up and a family staying together. Starring Adam Drive and Scarlett Johansson.
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Theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver) and actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are married, live in New York and have a young son. They love, respect and care about each other. They are staging an ambitious and critically well-received production.
They are also about the divorce.
The film follows their relationship as it is slowly taken apart and reformed anew by divorce, friends and family.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
One minute in to this lengthy – and thank God as there’s more to savour – ode to love and being in the family way will give you a lovely tingle inside.
A wife and her husband read out lists they have made about what they love about their spouse.
It’s a moment in which every facet of life, love and longing hangs in the air. Comedy, depth of understanding and appreciation, warmth, affection, those mild annoyances, irritations and micro-aggressions that you can’t live without. And, for us watching, the sense that a good story well told that will follow.
All the more to shock you, then, because these are lists the two are asked to read to the other during a terse therapy session to help them acclimatise to the potential of divorce, but aren’t vocalised during that crunch meeting.
The wife can’t bring herself to do it and the implication is she hasn’t written anything or anything much or has damned her lover with faint praise.
The deceptively happy opening thus slowly, beautifully disintegrates. The fluffy marshmallow feel of that therapy room gives way to the cold, hard, unfurnished urban spread of Los Angeles.
And arguments about what Halloween costume the couple’s son should wear and who gets whose parents builds toward the film falling-out argument par excellence that leaves strapping Driver crouched on the floor in a snotty, teary-eyed heap.
It’s a stunning, cathartic showdown that like all good slanging matches allows the air to clear and the couple’s emotional break to begin.
The insights into how caring relationships can sour as the years of taking each other for granted can eat away at people are layered with fine emotional detail but are written without getting cloyingly poetic (the husband and wife are, after all, middle class theatrical types), cinematic, or feeling the need to wax lyrical. They are verbose and cultures but grounded in ‘real’ words. This is familial breakdown all classes can appreciate and relate to.
The dialogue throughout the film matches and maintains this scene because Baumbach is a genius screenwriter.
And his ending – quite literally – ties everything up neatly, succinctly and positively as Johansson automatically attends to Driver’s loose shoelaces. Like the rest of the film, it doesn’t overdo things. It’s perfectly judged.
That post-argument breakdown of Driver’s is the icing on the cake of a perfect performance. If it wasn’t for Joaquin Phoenix as Joker, I’d say he was a dead cert for the Best Actor Oscar for his deeply touching and nuanced playing. He’s the epitome of the cultured, dependable and quietly manipulative man who politely domineers people. Seeing his emotions ripped open by a process he cannot wield much influence over, you feel his vulnerability.
There’s no question about who is the better actor because it is irrelevant – both he and Johansson scale equal heights and plumb equal depths.
Johansson’s sweetly, instantly likable Nicole is the switch-side of Driver’s Charlie – she starts on a downer and rises. Still, she is able to keep us on our toes by making us figure the truth behind what makes her tick and this, apparently sudden, realisation of self. There’s a lot of see-sawing here but, again, it’s love and all of its ups and downs.
And for anyone in doubt who great a great actor is – see them play another actor. Watch Nicole on stage during Charlie’s avante-garde theatre hit (he’s highly a critical man but she gives him little to criticise her with), in the brief snippet of her ’15 minutes of film fame’ and swiftly becoming an authoritative voice on the TV pilot. She nails the whole thing.
There are some telling, even touching, prominent supporting roles throughout this film.
Julie Hagerty, as Johansson’s staunchly independent mother who maintains relationships with her daughter’s exes, is appearing in more high-profile movies of late, putting in bright and perky performances, such as Instant Family (2018) and it’s always a delight to see her appealing self.
Laura Dern as Johansson’s willowy, slightly flaky lawyer-life coach is a hit. Speaking soothing words to encourage her potential new client to open up about her man being terrible and then, she does: “That fucking asshole.”
Ray Liotta as slick, suspicious lawyer and Alan Alda as an older, softer and more compassionate opposite number who has a cat in his office.
In short, I can’t recommend this movie enough. It’ll make you laugh, cry, gasp, cry and laugh a bit more. Whatever you do, make sure you see it.
Cast & credits
Director: Noah Baumbach. 2hr 17mins/127mins. Heyday Films/Netflix. (15).
Producers: Noah Baumbach, David Heyman.
Writer: Noah Baumbach.
Camera: Robbie Ryan.
Music: Randy Newman.
Sets: Jade Healy.
Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Julie Greer, Azhy Robertson, Wallace Shawn, Matthew Maher, Eric Berryman, Mickey Sumner, Julie Hagerty, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda.