Courtesy of Netflix
Noah Baumbach’s record remains unscathed as the writer-director continues his hot streak of humane and heartbreaking films that are delivered with the utmost poignancy. His near perfect film “Marriage Story” opens with spouses Nicole (Scarlett Jonhansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) each reading a list of everything they love and admire about each other. It’s adorable and seemingly sets the stage for a hearty story before Baumbach throws it back in our faces. These lists are assigned by a counselor whose helping the couple maneuver through their impending divorce.
Over the course of the two hour film, Baumbach pulls back the curtain of this relationship from its inception to where things ended. Walking a tightrope of emotions in what is a hilarious, devastating, and utterly transcendent experience. Their separation brings out the worst and best of them, we learn how and why they fell in love and why they’re best off seeing other people. It sounds fairly conventional by drama standards, but what’s so powerful about “Marriage Story” is how it sneaks up on you emotionally. Any dramatic tension from the film is whether or not these two can remain civil enough to raise their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson - outstanding), whose seemingly caught between two worlds.
In doing so, Baumbach conducts a thrilling balancing act throughout, just when you think to have pegged Nicole or Charlie as the respective victim, new information is presented and veers the audience in a different path. The script is excellent at making us empathize and appreciate each point-of-view, but then you get irritated when both of them make ill-advised mistakes.
Throwing a wrench in the situation is the cross-country nature of their divorce; Charlie is an acclaimed New York theater director, and actress/L.A. native Nicole is shacking up with her mom to shoot a pilot, taking Henry with her. Once the legal proceedings take place, Charlie has to often fly back and forth and contend with California partnership laws, something their lawyers aren’t thrilled with. In Nicole’s corner is Nora (Laura Dern chewing up the screen) an accomplished and well respected divorce attorney with enough pull in the town to make things go her way and is far more ruthless than Charlie’s eventual lawyer Jay, a snarky and dirty scoundrel that gives Ray Liotta his best work in decades. (Charlie’s first attorney was the older and wiser Bert, played softly by a terrific Alan Alda.)
It all leads to a brutal divorce hearing where both sides plead their case and go for the jugular. It’s tough to watch because, deep down, you feel that Charlie and Nicole’s love is still palpable and can be salvaged. With that, Baumbach has crafted an essential and necessary piece of modern cinema that’s going to stick around long after this crazy awards race concludes. I also expect a slew of nominations for the work of both Driver and Johansson, and even though you’d be hard pressed to say the work of both professionals is revolutionary given their filmography, the actors still manage to deliver some of the best work of their careers in “Marriage Story.”
Both characters run the table from sarcastic narcissism to utter compassion, and “Marriage Story” falls in line with a plethora of great films about the messiness of relationships, as sometimes love is ugly, brutal, and tumultuous. But in this wonderfully emphatic film you can still learn compassion through the bad times and find love where you least expect it.