Released 2019. Director: Noah Baumbach
“YOU GUYS ARE SO BEAUTIFUL,” THE BABYSITTER blurts in an accidental gush as Nicole and Charlie return home from a night out. The young woman is visibly enamoured in the presence of a minor celebrity couple in the New York arts scene. Charlie is a theatre director and Nicole is his lead actress.
As played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Charlie and Nicole are the perfect embodiment of a talented couple that some young people look up to as role models. They are successful, savvy, articulate, sensitive and married to each other. The beautiful couple and their perfect life, unfortunately, is coming apart as their relationship dissolves and despite their best efforts, they’ll have to face the ugliness they probably never imagined existed within themselves.
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story peels away the wilting petals of a fading blossom. His compassionate and mature telling of a divorce story is one of human fallibility and emotional struggles, of contradictions, denial, frustration and anger.
The movie opens with the couple reciting what they’ve written about why they love each other. The litany of quirks, habits and personality traits is visually accompanied by a montage of domestic bliss, but it ends with an abrasive walkout at a couple’s therapy session.
Nicole resents Charlie for her lost years and opportunities at becoming a Hollywood actress following a promising debut, after which she moved to New York to support Charlie in establishing his theatre career. Her life, as she sees it, has been subsumed under his direction while she gradually loses her sense of self. She also found out Charlie cheated on her. As for Charlie, he hasn’t stopped loving Nicole and he doesn’t understand how the life they’ve built together hasn’t turned out to be what Nicole wanted. He had no idea of his wife’s growing discontent.
Nicole returns home to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career on television, bringing their young son Henry. They plan on an amicable divorce with no argument over money. Then someone persuades Nicole to call Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a hotshot divorce attorney, and everything changes. Charlie comes over to visit and Nicole delivers the divorce papers.
The high-powered, protective and dragon-in-a-dress Nora expertly steers Nicole into a combative tussle for divorce settlement and custody of their son. Charlie, blindsided and not about to give up fatherhood, has no choice but to seek his own legal representation. This is easier said than done, with the geographic difference forcing him to lead a bi-coastal life, juggling an increasingly bitter divorce on one side, and keeping his theatre projects running on the other. For custody reasons, he has to make it look convincing so he needs to set up a home in L.A. as well.
What is originally planned as a simple procedure becomes a full-blown headache once the lawyers get involved. The legal system is meant to protect the vulnerable. Unfortunately it also over-complicates and frustrates when couples like Charlie and Nicole only wish to settle between themselves. It’s a little late for that now.
Lawyers on both sides are ruthless in digging into imaginary vices. They start from a negative place of assuming the worst in the other party, squeeze as hard as they can and force them into a corner. The divorce process seen here is exhausting emotionally and also crippling financially. Charlie’s lawyer Jay (Ray Liotta) charges $950 an hour, on top of a $25,000 retainer fee. As pointed out by Bert (Alan Alda), the lawyer Charlie ditched for Jay because he just isn’t vicious enough for Nora, this is money that could have been put aside for Henry’s future education.
Ironically, Henry is at the heart of the divorce battle. Both parents are fighting hard over their son. It is tempting for the audience to take sides, but Baumbach’s script is too well-considered and balanced it’s all but impossible. He gives time and space for Charlie and Nicole to tell their side of their marriage story and both sides are sympathetically conveyed. There is no villain, and in the end, no victor.
As much as this is a writer’s showcase, Marriage Story really belongs to the two leads. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver reach a new level of career highlight with raw, wrenching and perceptive performances of a pair of fully-realised characters. The big scene of explosive rage that erupts from a deep well of unhappiness is almost painful to witness. Quiet scenes are no less poignant, such as when Nicole confides in Nora and when Charlie sings Stephen Sondheim’s "Being Alive": “Someone to know you too well… someone to hurt you too deep…”
Mirroring the movie’s opening lines a moment before the end, Henry finds Nicole’s notes on what she loves about Charlie and reads aloud. Feelings overwhelm Charlie, as Nicole watches from a distance.
Despite what they put themselves through, these are two well-meaning people who still care about each other. By movie’s end, you’ll come to care for Nicole and Charlie too and wish the best for them. Marriage Story is an insightful look at a fractured bond, with a delicate balance between artistic restraint and an emotional gut punch.
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