As always, mild spoilers below!
It’s safe to say I was very excited for this one.
I’m a huge Baumbach fan, so I was highly anticipating a movie where he tackles a personal divorce story propped up by a talented cast that garnered a lot of festival acclaim. After last week’s dive into The Irishman, I was looking forward to seeing which Netflix awards contender I would be championing this season.
Yeah, it’s this one.
I loved The Irishman and I think it’s Scorsese’s best film this century (perhaps tied with Silence) but this movie is so up my alley I could have practically given this the whole five stars before even seeing it. I didn’t, of course, and held my breath as the opening scene played.
Two hours and sixteen minutes later, I was crying.
Not just because of the emotional ending, but because of the experience I had just witnessed. I felt as though Baumbach was personal reciting the story of his own divorce, because these two characters are so fully real that when they hurt, I hurt.
The writing all around is exceptional, but that’s just par for the course for Baumbach. His irreverent dialogue has always been a highlight but I was also impressed by his character writing, which in his earlier films could risk taking a backseat to the showy dialogue. The movie literally opens with these characters being introduced to us, from the perspective of their significant other. Of course they’re viewed from rose-coloured glasses, but Nicole and Charlie already feel like people you know, people you’ve interacted with. Caring about these characters is a prerequisite to what makes this movie succeed, and Baumbach absolutely nails it. His scene-writing and the way the screenplay is structured really highlight both the situation and how the characters feel about things immensely well, and there’s a really great effect in having the focus shift from one character to the other from the first half to the second half; because there are two sides to every story, it does take two people to build or break a relationship and Baumbach showcases that in such a satisfying way, particularly due to his exquisite and career-best camera work.
The shots are beautifully blocked and composed, it’s not just static frames and boring placements as a lot of character dramas can be guilty of. The shot-reverse-shot mentality works well here, particularly in one moment during the courtroom scene as it does its job to capture both characters’ perspectives. If you identify with one of them, Baumbach is never hesitant to show you the other side of the coin, how the other person feels about what’s going on. These types of shots and editing styles do well to show that they were once a cohesive unit, often pairing Charlie and Nicole in the same shot with the angles doing their job wonderfully. An example of this comes in one of the ending scenes,the letter reading scene. The blocking is perfect and the focus is on Charlie, but Nicole can be seen in the background, observing just as we’re observing. It’s subtle and works beautifully.
Now here’s where I’ll start to wander off topic because I’m going to talk about our lead actors. I’ll start with Adam Driver. We know he’s a terrific actor, his work in Paterson and the Star Wars movies have more recently shown us this and it’s a great year for him, hell it’s a great month for him as we anticipate the release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. And yes there will be a review when it comes out. Driver’s recent success has allowed him to expand his range and play a variety of characters, but I think his work in Marriage Story is the best work I’ve seen from him, and probably the best of his career so far. Charlie is a pretty hard character to like in the beginning, I’ll be honest, when the movie is following Nicole for a short while but that’s what I think makes Driver’s work so brilliant. He’s very subtle in the first half of the movie, allowing the stressors to pile up on top of him in the middle, only for the dam to burst at the end. It’s oddly reminiscent of Glenn Close’s turn in The Wife, the way Driver absorbs and listens and his energy builds and builds until he snaps. And when the moment comes (in one of the best scenes I’ve witnessed in a long time), it’s breathtaking. You can practically see him letting go of everything that has been happening to him, all of the confusing emotions he has regarding Nicole, everything just comes flooding out and it’s marvellous. The infusion of melodrama actually does work in this instance, I’m finding recently that I’ve been enjoying the melodramas. The argument is realistic, yes, but it also crosses that line they’d been treading and it doesn’t alienate. Driver punches a wall and you accept it. Because he sells the moment, he’s spent the past hour letting things happen and trying way too hard to be amicable until Nicole leaves him no choice but to break. It’s angry, gritty, and everything you want from an argument like that. It’s definitely one of my favourite performances of the year. Oh, and his Being Alive sequence? Flawless.
Now let’s talk about 2019’s actual biggest winner, Scarlett Johansson. With Avengers: Endgame and Jojo Rabbit also on her slate this year, she’s having a great time being the highest paid actress in the world, it’s not for nothing either and she’s proven that with the best performance of her career. She’s so incredibly open in this film, and Baumbach’s writing and this genre definitely suits her talents. She’s a great action star and can nail a good comedy, but dramas like this and Lost in Translation and even her work in Her definitely showcase her in the best light. Now I love her, but if she wasn’t out there being a big clown, she could probably take home the Oscar for this and it would be deserving. It’s not just the argument scene, which she is also absolutely brilliant in, but it’s the subtle moments too. The glances, the way she moves about the space, everything is perfect. Her monologue the first time Nicole meets Nora is exquisite, propped up by Johansson’s natural talent and Baumbach’s exquisite vision and writing for the scene. Johansson truly becomes Nicole and it never wavers. There isn’t one weak moment in the entire film, she’s incredibly strong with all of the ups and downs that Nicole faces. It’s beautiful, soul-bearing work that comes at a time when she’s detached from the MCU and reminded everybody about how talented she really is. She did great work as Black Widow, but the range she displays here is on another level. The screaming matches are great, but I also love that you can see the conflicting emotions on her face. She loves Charlie, that’s visible in her smiles and facial tics, but she also resents him a lot and that’s also right there on her face, at the same time. It’s wonderful, wonderful work that’s worthy of any award there is.
I thought that Laura Dern’s role might have been a bit meatier, but she has so much natural talent and presence that it makes it seem like she had way more to do. It’s not the performance that’s most demonstrative of her skills, and some have compared it to a scaled-down version of Renata Klein from Big Little Lies, but I think there’s a lot more to Nora and Dern’s performance than meets the eye. She’s a brilliant lawyer, we know that, but she has to be the turning point between Nicole and Charlie settling things independently and then escalating into full-blown war over their son. She sells everything she’s given and provides more than what was on the page. Again, it’s not the best of her career and I would perhaps agree than Oscar for this is more likely to be taken as a career award, tied with her presence in Little Women, and while I certainly want Laura Dern to be an Oscar winner, I’m not sure this is the performance I’d want her to be commemorated for. Not that it isn’t great, but she’s done far better.
I also want to take about the beautiful score by Randy Newman. It doesn’t crop up that often, but it’s appropriately placed, really selling the big moments. The track Shouting and Shopping is a big standout for me. It fits with the movie so well, and sounds like the perfect soundtrack for a picket-fence life with his swelling, almost uplifting major notes and string melodies. Sometimes it’s truly a contrast to what is happening, almost like a reminder of what they once had, giving the film a very melancholic, nostalgic vibe to it that is awash with bittersweet feelings. It’s one I’m going to be rooting for come Oscar time.
Marriage Story is the best divorce movie I think I’ve seen. It’s funny, brutally emotional, and it’s all performed, written, and directed so extremely well that it feels like I’m watching a home video of two people I know when Nicole and Charlie are on screen together. It hurts, it amuses, it invokes an array of feelings, but more so than that it’s frustratingly good that you just want to be wrapped up in its embrace for another two hours, even with everything it puts you through. With career best work from so many already talented people, Marriage Story combines every element of itself to become one of the best movies of the year, one that I’ll be thinking about for a while and also one that I want to revisit time and time again down the line.