MARRIAGE STORY (2019) – Painfully Authentic Depiction of Divorce

marriage story

I finally caught up with MARRIAGE STORY (2019) the other night, the only 2019 Best Picture nominee that I had not seen before the Oscars aired last week.

I had heard that its depiction of divorce was depressingly realistic, and after finally having seen it,  I have to agree. MARRIAGE STORY gets the emotions right.

MARRIAGE STORY opens with a voice-over by Charlie (Adam Driver) describing all the reasons why he fell in love with his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and these reasons play out in little vignettes shown on-screen. Then it’s Nicole’s turn as she describes why she fell in love with Charlie, again in a voice-over narration with the accompanying vignettes. It turns out these were written by Charlie and Nicole as part of their mediation process, and when Nicole refuses to read out loud what she wrote, she walks out of the mediation meeting, and thus MARRIAGE STORY begins.

Charlie runs a very successful theater group in New York City, he as the director, and Nicole as the lead actress, but Nicole has always longed to return to Los Angeles where her family lives, but Charlie has never been interested in that idea, which has caused Nicole stress over the years. When Nicole accepts a role in a TV pilot, she moves to LA with their eight year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertston), a move that Charlie believes is temporary.

But once there, Nicole hires divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) who reminds Nicole that this process is about her getting what she wants and that there is no reason why she has to settle for things she doesn’t want, a la things that Charlie wants. When Charlie arrives in LA, he’s served the divorce papers, and he feels blindsided and betrayed by Nicole as he was under the impression that they were not going to hire lawyers, but Nicole makes it clear that she is unhappy and this is the only way she is going to get what she wants.

Charlie hires a more sensitive attorney Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), but after losing continually to Nora’s hardball tactics, he hires a tougher attorney, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) because as he tells Nicole, “I needed my own assh*le.”

As things get uglier and nastier, Nicole and Charlie have to deal with all their emotions even as they realize they don’t really want to hurt each other, in spite of the fact that their marriage is over and their divorce is imminent.

I really liked MARRIAGE STORY, even though watching it was a very uncomfortable experience.  As I said, it gets the emotions right. Through Nicole and Charlie, we witness the pain of watching one’s family and way of life disintegrate before one’s eyes, the frustration of suddenly being adversaries with the very person they’d been in love with, having to keep it together in front of their child, having to deal with their child’s emotions, but as a parent working alone. It makes them say things they simply don’t mean, as the whole ordeal gets inside their heads and changes them, scars them.

All of this is depicted very accurately in MARRIAGE STORY, as well as the sense that even while the divorce is happening, there’s the feeling that Nicole and Charlie don’t really want it to happen. That they love each other and don’t really want to hurt each other, but yet the marriage is over, and so there’s this weird mix of fighting for what you want and need vs. wanting on some level to keep that sense of family together even as the actual family is now separate.

So, kudos to writer/director Noah Baumbach for creating such a genuine portrait of divorce. The screenplay is outstanding.

As is the acting, especially by the two leads. Adam Driver continues to impress me as an actor. Sure, he plays Kylo Ren in the new STAR WARS movies, and he’s very good in the role, but he’s been better in other movies, in films like LOGAN LUCKY (2017) and BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018). His work here in MARRIAGE STORY is best of all.

Driver makes Charlie a self-absorbed character who is totally at home directing for the stage and perfectly content in that world, but it blinds him to the needs of his wife. He enjoys some powerful scenes, especially with Johansson, as their arguments are fiery and agonizing. Driver’s best moment comes when Charlie unleashes upon Nicole wishing her deader than dead, and then he just collapses, overcome with emotion, before apologizing for what he said.

Scarlett Johansson is just as good. As Nicole, she’s the one who seeks the divorce, but she’s also the one who needs the change, as Charlie is so stuck in his own world nothing she has said or done so far had been able to reach him. When she files for divorce, and Charlie tries to reconcile, in her eyes, it’s already too late. She believes if she goes back it’ll be the same, and she wants more for her life.

Johansson was equally as good as another mother Rosie in JOJO RABBIT (2019), which means 2019 was a pretty darn good year for Johansson.

Laura Dern won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role here as divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw. Dern is excellent, no question, although I thought both Florence Pugh in LITTLE WOMEN (2019) and Kathy Bates in RICHARD JEWELL (2019) gave better performances. That’s not to take anything away from Dern, who like Johansson, also enjoyed a stellar 2019. Dern was also in LITTLE WOMEN, as matriarch Marmee March, and she’s excellent in both films. In fact, these two performances are among Dern’s best ever. She’s been making movies for a long time, and so I for one was happy she won the Oscar. And I’m old enough to remember one of her earliest movies, SMOOTH TALK (1985), which I saw at the movies. She impressed me then and has continued to do so ever since.

But the main reason to see MARRIAGE STORY is to watch Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson performing at the top of their game. As good as the script is, MARRIAGE STORY ultimately works because of Driver and Johansson. They nail their roles, and the emotions that go along with them.

MARRIAGE STORY is not a fun movie, but it is an accurate one. Its depiction of divorce is painfully spot-on.

As such, it’s one of the finest dramas of 2019.

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