Divorce is an unpopular cinematic subject and it is easy to see why. It’s boring, emotionally draining and remarkably un-cinematic. Whilst plenty of filmmakers have tackled it before, it is a rarity to see a major drama centred entirely around it. But the films of Noah Baumbach, like The Meyorwitz Stories and Frances Ha, are almost all about relationships, so if anyone can translate the subject of divorce to film well, it’s him. Whilst Marriage Story is not quite the masterpiece it was hyped up to be, it is still very good.
Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) have decided to split up after spending years together. Nicole is an actress mostly based in LA and Charlie is a theatre director mostly based in New York. They end up going through the divorce process and being in a battle for the custody of their son, with Charlie going through two different lawyers (Ray Liotta and Alan Alda) and Nicole sticking with one (Laura Dern).
Marriage Story is a very different film to the one I expected. I expected a heavy drama that would make me feel depressed, but it is not really depressing at all. It is more of a comedy-drama than a straight drama and the tone is rather positive and heightened rather than negative and realistic. That tone left me at a crossroads, because I personally wanted something that was more hard-edged, as that would have impacted and stayed with me more. However, when the film is dramatic it manages to be very effective, with a third act argument scene and a musical number towards the end being especially heart-wrenching.
What thankfully makes this film worthwhile are the two leads, who are both at the top of their game. I have never seen Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver act this well. Driver’s intense and subtle work might be expected by this point, but trust me when I say that his performance here manages to top any other that I have seen from him. Johansson puts the nail in the coffin of the opinion that she’s a wooden actress, with plenty of moments that rely on both wonderful facial acting and emotionally shaky line deliveries. Azhy Robertson as their son also deserves credit, as he holds his own very well against the other actors. The supporting cast are also solid, but I do think that some of them stray into broadness. Laura Dern is the one who walks the tightrope between real and showy the best and Alan Alda feels completely genuine, but Ray Liotta and Julie Hagarty as Nicole’s mum, though not bad, stick out due to feeling very unnatural.
The screenplay is also strong, whilst Charlie is far more of a main character than Nicole (probably because Baumbach wanted to choose a POV he was familiar with), both are fleshed out, nuanced and ultimately likeable characters. Neither of them can fully be sided with but neither are hateable either. The dialogue is also witty, entertaining and very funny (Dern’s monologue about Christianity was hysterical) and the incorporation of comedy is implemented well, as it not only fits the general tone but it is blended well with the drama. Finally, the narrative is admittedly nothing special, but it is a decent framework to tell an overall satisfying story through.
Noah Baumbach’s direction is also fantastic. He, Editor Jennifer Lame and Cinematographer Robbie Ryan all work together to liven up a story that could have been very blandly and dryly presented. There are a couple of key sequences where the composition sticks out as being very strong, specifically in a courtroom scene and an intercut phone conversation. The only sticking point is Randy Newman, who composes a beautiful score that unfortunately does add to the film feeling less grounded. On occasion it is added when it is not needed, especially in one key moment early on that would have been powerful if not for the score telling you “This is sad!”
Whilst Marriage Story could have benefitted from a more grounded tone, it is still an effective, entertaining and stunningly acted relationship drama. Not the best film of 2019, but still another addition to a good end-of-year run.