“It’s not as simple as not being in love any more.”
Movies like this that deal with real-life situations such as divorce are usually pretty tough to watch. However, this is done in an entertaining way that you still feel the gut punches but not in that uncomfortable cringe kind of way. It’s a bittersweet tale told from the perspective of a couple whose custody battle over their son goes from trying to work together to wanting to rip one anothers’ throats out. Director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) does a tremendous job of letting his actors command the screen while he takes us on an intimate ride into this interpersonal struggle.
Marriage Story opens with what seems like love letters from Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlet Johansson) about certain qualities and quirks they love about one another. Listening to the narration while we observe those actions take place helps build these characters in an interesting way. We see all their best qualities poured out in an honest and open way that makes us feel connected to them almost immediately. Until the rug is pulled out from under us when we learn they only wrote these as a part of their mediation for their pending divorce. Neither one was able to share their thoughts. And the story begins.
What we see next is like reverse implosion (If that makes sense. It doesn’t to me, but I thought it sounded neat.) of what seemed like a perfect couple that we just met. At first, we witness Nicole want to blossom into her own person, something more than just Charlie’s wife and mother to his child. She gave up a potential acting career in L.A. to be a part of his theater productions in New York, where they have lived together for ten years, as both achieve critical acclaim. But it wasn’t her dream. She could have been a star dammit! Scarlet is incredible here and delivers perhaps my favorite performance of her career. We see her work through Nicole’s emotions the same way Nicole is trying to figure all this out.
To be honest, Nicole comes off looking like the villain at first and well, pretty much the whole movie (I’ll get to Charlie, don’t worry). Maybe it’s just me being a man, but I stick by it. She begins to follow her dream by taking her son with her to L.A. and then escalating the whole ordeal by lawyering up with Laura Dern; who is the only big issue I have with this film. Dern just can’t sell me on anything, and I think it would have worked better with someone else in her place. She isn’t supposed to be likable, I get it. She just isn’t my cup of tea. Just put your red heels back on lady.
As things begin to get ugly, we see Charlie, let’s face it, as the more sympathetic character for most of the movie. Driver has been pretty hit or miss with me (Kylo Ren being one of the misses), but he just kills it here. As a father, I feel his pain of feeling like he is losing his son unless he makes certain concessions that he never had any intention of making and we watch as Charlie slowly unravels till he finally explodes a lot longer after almost any other human would. Which brings me to arguably the scene of the year and one of the best of all time.
Both sides have dug their heels in for a dirty fight over the custody battle for their son. A lot of hurtful and possible damaging insights have come to light. Mostly petty pathetic bickering which just adds to the real factor. With both feeling the pressure of the whole ordeal, one last attempt to work it out between them calmly is made by Nicole, and we see all the pent-up emotion and animosity spew out like a heavyweight boxing match, one haymaker after another until both are exhausted from the battle. It’s a fantastic scene where it feels like Baumbach just looked at both his leads and said, “Go at it. I’m staying out of the way.” I was exhausted afterward. It rips your heart out and they make you feel every bit of the characters’ emotions.
There isn’t much here to not like. It’s an almost perfect film.
One issue I did have was the Charlie affair angle. It felt tacked on and a lazy way to bring Charlie down a peg so Nicole didn’t look like the only awful person here. I’m not saying Charlie wasn’t at fault in any of this, but they just didn’t do a good enough job of making it equal if that’s what they were going for. Charlie failed to remember marriage is a partnership and he never took into account what Nicole wanted or needed. It feels like if they had that heavyweight battle before their decision to separate, they might have been able to work it out.
I highly recommend this movie and I even recommend watching it with your significant other, if you have one. I watched it with my wife, and we both saw the pettiness and unwillingness to communicate between the two. We ain’t perfect, but we want to make sure we never get to that point. I thoroughly enjoyed every character in this, except Dern, and it was great seeing Ray Liotta as the hardnosed divorce attorney. Also, I was glad they didn’t utilize the melodramatic their kid gets into *insert event here* trope to have them come together and make nice. Baumbach was able to avoid certain pitfalls that can sully these types of films.