Current Issue #479

Film Review:
Marriage Story

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s latest drama for Netflix is his most painful movie ever and not an easy watch, whether you’re a child of divorced parents, or have gone through the whole terrible experience yourself.

His follow-up to The Meyerwitz Stories (New And Selected), which was all about a family splintering but healing, this rather recalls his The Squid And The Whale, which was essentially about his parents messy divorce, and yet he has come out and plainly stated that it’s an almost autobiographical study of the end of his marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh (they were hitched between 2005 and 2010).

The parallels between this and Noah’s own life are sometimes so obvious that it’s hard to believe that Leigh has given the movie her approval: for example, Scarlett Johansson’s actress Nicole here was the star of a teen sex comedy, while Leigh began her career in Fast Times At Ridgemont High and, furthermore, when Adam Driver’s theatre director Charlie is revealed to have grown intimate with a colleague, it’s hard not to think that this is some thinly-veiled reference to Noah’s collaborator and now-partner Greta Gerwig.

Furthermore, while the script is solely credited to this filmmaker, it seems that Johansson and co-star Laura Dern added details from their own divorce(s), while Driver drew upon memories of his youth with addict parents who eventually, and nastily, split. And yes, Baumbach has also acknowledged a debt to some of Ingmar Bergman’s more emotionally confronting films. Of course.

We begin with Charlie and Nicole offering “What I Love About…” monologues and montages, with her revealed as kind, compassionate and a great listener, him shown as self-made, self-sufficient and generous, and both noted as great parents to their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson). We wonder why this is a story of divorce when both seem to still love each other, and then we pull back to reveal that these lists are being drawn up in couple therapy and resolution. And it’s failing.

Much is made about Nicole and Charlie not wanting to hurt Henry or each other, as that’s the sort of thing other people do, not them, but then, when the going gets rougher and crueller, the hurting truly begins. Nora, a high-powered LA attorney brilliantly portrayed by Dern (and reportedly based on a real person), pushes Nicole to try for sole custody, while Charlie is driven to seek representation from old pro Bert Spitz, whom Alan Alda plays with all his twinkling humour and sweetness, although he too will push this couple towards breaking point. And beyond.

Way beyond. Some of the scenes here are powerfully intense, but the much-discussed mighty blow-up between Johansson and Driver, which we know is coming, is one of the most shocking sequences you’ll see in any movie from 2019 (whether made for Netflix or the cinemas). Apparently staged by Baumbach with a sort of Kubrickian ruthlessness that resulted in 50 takes, all from the top and completely harrowing for the actors, this has these characters we thought we liked, and whom we thought liked each other, say the horrible things that they’ll always regret. And anyone who’s only seen Johansson in Marvel movies and Driver in the new Star Wars series should be doubly traumatised.

There are fine supporting performances from Julie Hagerty and Merrit Wever as Nicole’s Mom Sandra and sister Cassie, and Wallace (“Inconceivable!”) Shawn as Charlie’s theatrical colleague and old pal, and yet this is mostly all about the couple as they face the death of their relationship and, indeed, something within themselves. That therefore means that this is in no way a ‘Date Movie’ or something to view with your significant other if you’re having problems, so perhaps, under those circumstances, go for something easier, softer and safer.

Like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, perhaps?

Reviewer Rating
8/10

Marriage Story (M) is now streaming on Netflix

DM Bradley

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