Balance is arguably the most important element in a film. The ability to achieve equilibrium between the set, actors, script, lighting, etc. is what makes a film undeniably great. With Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach takes that challenge and intensifies it to uncomfortably high levels. In the film, Adam Driver (Charlie) and Scarlett Johansson (Nicole) play the Barbers, an artistic couple that stumble their way through an awkward separation that eventually evolves into a nasty and unrelenting divorce. As divorce lawyers (Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta) and family members (Julie Haggerty and Merritt Weaver) try to steer Charlie and Nicole back together and further apart, the two shift from starring in and directing Broadway plays to appearing in a drama that they have no control over.
At its core, Marriage Story is an actor’s film. In the same way that Dunkirk was a masterclass in sound editing and mixing, Marriage Story is a vehicle for earth-shattering performances from Driver and Johansson. Driver, arguably the greatest actor of his generation, delivers a performance that should all but guarantee him his first Academy Award. Driver and Johansson’s performances are all about searching for a new normal. The way Driver’s tender timbre quivers with a quiet rage and eventually explodes in a moment of chaotic catharsis is simply incredible. His character spends most of the film realizing how unknowingly selfish and controlling he has been for the entirety of his marriage. In one particular scene, in which Charlie and Nicole have a climactic confrontation as their lawyers begin to up the ante, Driver delivers one of the most gloriously chaotic and heartbreakingly human performances of the decade. Driver floats between love, pride, contempt, confusion, and fear with a startling ease. He’s a force of nature; his innate calmness anchors the rest of the film. Johansson more than holds her own besides Driver. She portrays a woman who became so small in her marriage that divorce was the only way that she could reclaim the voice that she had all those years ago. The perpetual red of her eyes as she struggles to hold herself together in public is simply devastating. Johansson plays her role with subtle notes of hope because Marriage Story isn’t devoid of joy. Yes, Baumbach is trying to find a new normal for the Barbers, but this is also Nicole’s opportunity to live a life of her own for herself.
Outside of the two outstanding lead performances, Dern, Alda, Weaver, Haggerty, and Azhy Robertson also deliver great performances. Dern, who has been churning out one excellent performance after another from The Tale to Big Little Lies, is Nicole’s fierce (if sometimes forceful) divorce lawyer, Nora. Nora is the representation of what Nicole could be on the other side of this divorce, and Dern plays the role with an expert blend of comedy and sincerity. Alan Alda, the legend himself, is Charlie’s warm and tender divorce lawyer that eventually gets replaced once Nora and Nicole start playing dirty. Alda’s wisdom shines through his performance and he has a calming yet commanding presence in each of his scenes. Haggerty and Weaver play Nicole’s mother and sister, respectively; a Hollywood-bred family of performers, the three of them are like a muted version of The Three Stooges which provides much needed comedic relief in Marriage Story. Similarly, Robertson, who plays Henry (Nicole and Charlie’s only child), has this stellar deadpan voice that teeters between melancholy bluntness and pure humor. Henry’s journey as an 8-year-old child of divorce is incredibly intriguing. He grows apart from his father at the exact moment when they need to be closest. It’s heavy stuff. At times, Marriage Story can feel suffocating. The film isn’t melodramatic, but the unabashed honesty about the awkwardness and vitriol of divorce is a lot to handle at times. Thankfully, each actor in the ensemble brings their own blend of emotion to balance the film.
Noah Baumbach, the director and writer of Marriage Story, has pulled off an incredible feat here. This script is absolutely incredible. This fact cannot be understated simply because it is so easy to sink into hysteria and hyperbole when covering divorce. While some will say that Baumbach sides with one party over the other (I, personally, think he sides with Charlie just a touch more), he strikes as much of a balance as possible when portraying the two characters. The dialogue flows seamlessly and nothing sounds made to be a “moment.” This is simply a two-hour look at the deterioration of a marriage, it’s human. Baumbach basically relies on parallelism for most of the film, but he does it beautifully, so it’s never too painfully obvious. The only time it really falls flat is when Nicole’s performance of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is juxtaposed against Charlie’s performance of “Being Alive.” The two Broadway buffs sing show tunes to move their narratives along. Neither scene is interesting or particularly moving, so it’s a bit overkill. Of the film’s technical aspects, everything is respectable, but nothing outstanding. Then again, it doesn’t necessarily have to be, this isn’t a film that is particularly concerned with crazy visual effects or costumes. There is, however, one editing choice that really detracts from the film. Many scenes end with a fade to black or an elongated fade that comes off as amateurish and unfortunately reminiscent of the 2000s rom-coms.
Marriage Story doesn’t tell us anything new about divorce at all, but it tells this story with such conviction and dedication that it feels like a revelation. Get a box of tissues and open up a Netflix tab, this won’t disappoint.