Marriage Story

This is a great movie. It is heartbreaking, challenging, and sometimes hilarious. It tackles a very difficult subject beautifully with excellent filmmaking and some of the best performances of the year. Netflix and Noah Baumbach have made fantastic movie.

The film opens with a pair of montages. In voice over Charlie Barber, played by Adam Driver, details all the things about his wife that he loves. Then his wife Nicole Barber, played by Scarlett Johansson, detail all the things about Charlie that she loves. This is brilliant for a number of reasons. It quickly establishes the characters, their jobs as director and actress in a New York theater company, and their relationships with their son. It also and more importantly humanizes them and makes them humans for the audience. It is quickly revealed that these two are getting a divorce. It is meant to be an amicable split. They are trying to work through it without lawyers or contention. That conviviality goes out the door pretty quickly though, and they descend into nastiness. The thing that makes all this ugliness bearable is this opening montage. These are two good people who at one time loved each other very much. They love their son and no matter how bad it gets that love is real and will always be there.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are absolutely stunning in this movie. Adam Driver conveys so much depth in every inflection of his voice. He is completely magnetic on screen. His role could have been showy and overplayed so easily. He could have come across as a self pitying victim with one misstep, but Driver’s foot never falters. He is pitch perfect throughout. Johansson likewise does what is probably her best work yet here. There is one scene in particular in which she has to answer interview questions regarding her parenting. It is all filmed in a single closeup. With every question million different tiny emotions register across her face. She is real and natural and convincing throughout the whole movie. She imbues every moment with an easy authenticity. The two of them together make the film feel like a documentary at times. All artifice disappears and the film becomes a real experience with these people.

There are some wonderful supporting performances from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda. Of these three, Alan Alda is the favorite. He is this befuddled old attorney who is definitely in over his head, but is just carrying on as best he can totally unbothered by his situation. It is a delight to see him every time he’s on screen. Ray Liotta is a searing force in this movie. He is a shark of a lawyer in every sense of the word. He sits behind a desk in one scene, but it still feels like he’s prowling around Charlie. Although Laura Dern is the real standout of the three lawyers. She totally becomes a different person here. Her every movement completely captures a certain type of vapid, powerful Los Angeles resident. She’s the type of person who listens, but doesn’t hear a thing. And Laura Dern does an amazing job of conveying the fact that she is only waiting for her turn to talk. She could have easily been the villain of the film. She could have been a bitch or a hag or the force for evil in this story, but she isn’t. Laura Dern’s handling of this character could not have been better. I hate her. I caught myself hating this fictional character even though I knew she wasn’t real.

The filmmaking here is also fantastic. It is full of wonderful camera work. There is an early scene at a restaurant in which Charlie and Nicole look at each other from across the room, and the angles used and the way it cuts between them is absolutely riveting filmmaking. The script is full of surprising humor. It perfectly skewers Los Angeles in a single shot in which a dozen people surround Nicole as she walks from the set to her trailer. They all talk incessantly about nothing, and it perfectly sums up that whole city and the film industry. There is a scene early in which Charlie is getting served divorce papers that is so suspenseful yet hilarious that it creates equal parts terrible tension and outrageous laughter. It is vividly constructed and absolutely hilarious. Maybe my favorite shot of the movie comes in the middle when Charlie, Nicole, and their son are closing Nicole’s grate. She is on one side. He is on the other. They push together to close a huge door between them. There couldn’t be a better visual metaphor for the movie. It is beautiful and perfect.

However, the film does not shy away from the nastiness of divorce. These two tear each other apart. They brutalize each other in court and over the phone and, in one riveting scene in particular, in person. I spent a great deal of the film’s runtime in deep frustration. I had a pit of anxiety in my throat throughout most of the movie. It can be unbearable at times. That is a sign of the films’ effectiveness, but it is also tough to watch at times. The movie is deeply challenging to its audience. It pushes right up to the edge then brings it all back. I was under stress while watching it, but I could not look away. I would have regretted looking away. This is a masterful movie that deserves to be watched.

It is currently streaming on Netflix. Please watch this brilliant movie. It was definitely my cup of tea. I hope it’s yours too. A+

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