Marriage Story review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Noah Baumbach has such a way with words that can make the predictable drama of divorce feel more palpable. It’s mostly because Baumbach’s writing doesn’t shy away from making dialogue feel real and relatable. There are angry bouts between the husband and wife losing their roles, sure, but also off-guard moments that may surprise. Parents don’t often speak of their children like pawns or investments in their legal issues. Some of them just talk about how well they can read and if they’re pooping alright. These strange conversations but families are weird like that, even if Baumbach’s world takes place in one about the affluent.
Of course, it helps to have a stellar cast as well and Baumbach once again lands some top talent. Adam Driver plays the husband of Charlie Barber, a theater director who is seeing a rising career. He pairs well enough with his actress wife, Nicole, played by Scarlett Johansson. They have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), who they love very much. They have their quirks and their hangups but seem to connect rather well. It is for this reason why the film starts with their divorce already in the making, though not asking too much backtracking in how they came to this point. The truth is that divorce just sometimes happens and people drift. The real questioning within Marriage Story is just how easy that final drift can be or, rather, how difficult divorces proceed.
Though Charlie and Nicole seem to want an amicable divorce, other forces change their perspectives. Namely, it’s their lawyers. Nicole hires Nora (Laura Dern), a passionate woman who tries to stress how important it is for Nicole to be firmly independent. Charlie at first hires the lawyer Bert (Alan Alda) who seems kind but also weak. He will later hire the more furiously determined Jay (Ray Liotta) who is willing to play dirty when it comes to the custody of Henry. Though Nicole and Charlie both want what’s best for their Henry, others seem to think they should be fighting for more. Many misguided voices lead them astray, even the ones who mean well. Charlie’s oldest actor in the troupe (Wallace Shawn) talks about divorce more as an opportunity to have a lot of sex, coming from experience.
Driver and Johansson deliver some of their career-best performances for both their tender moments and heated exchanges. The bookend bit features them writing lists of what they admire most about each other and it’s spoken in such a relatable and honest way that nearly brought me to tears for the earnestness. The way they speak of tea that goes cold and Halloweens that feel lackluster holds an emotional resonance most keen. Then there’s the more notable scene of Driver and Johansson exploding on each other in the boil of fury about how much they’ve grown to hate each other. Driver’s anger is so immersive I questioned whether it was part of the script for him to punch a hole in the wall or if that just came about in heated improvisation.
Marriage Story meanders a bit here and there and often finds some odd avenues of comedy. There’s a scene where Charlie accidentally cuts his hand open amid a social worker in a manner that is darkly comedic and so off-beat it’s probably the most hilarious moment. Armed with astounding acting, every scene is so well crafted with Baumbach’s adept ear for dialogue and a way to make us care about such characters. The little details make this such a stellar picture of how divorce is a messy experience, even for people who seem so confident and clean.