Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Marriage Story - Review

On the surface, the title Marriage Story seems ill-fitting for the tale of two people in the process of a divorce. But dig down deeper, into the sorrow and pain, and you’ll see that the film does tell the story of this couple’s marriage, just in bits and pieces, the shattered remnants of what once was. Its equal parts a couple falling out of love, while struggling to remember why they were in love in the first place, and picking up the pieces to figure out how to move forward, and it may just be the best film of the entire year.

A stage director, Charlie Barber (Adam Driver), and his actor wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) struggle through a grueling, coast-to-coast divorce that pushes them to their personal and creative extremes.

The duality of a marriage in tatters is ripe with dramatic potential. Just as there are two people, there are two stories, and each one manifests in a way that paints its teller in the best light. However, director and writer Noah Baumbach doesn’t let the actual film take sides or sympathies for one over the other, it just presents these people and their strife, and the family and friends that get sucked into it.

If any of this sounds dull or overwrought, rest assured that Marriage Story is also a fantastic comedic affair. From the back and forth of Nicole, her sister, and her mother discussing the logistics of serving Charlie with divorce papers to the actual slapstick disaster of a social service worker visit to Charlie’s barebones L.A. condo, the film finds absurdity amongst the sadness and plays with it in a great way.

Baumbach constructs ever so slightly from his own life, a divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh likely serving as the base for this narrative at the very least, but the mirror seems pretty clear and the perspective expertly aided by two actors at the top of their game. For Johansson, she has rarely been this empathetic, bringing Nicole to life at a point where she is realizing her own self-worth after living in her husband’s shadow. For Driver, he has rarely had a chance to be this vulnerable, so utterly lost and helpless as Charlie who continues to fight even though he isn’t quite sure how. The two largely serve as a connection to separate stories, two people that have to know each other forever, even after this process is over.

There is so much emotion packed into this very human film. Marriage Story is a gut wrenching experience, so much so that you can’t help but feel for these two, and perhaps even shed a tear (or many). The film comes to an emotional head with the use of two separate Sondheim songs that say so much about the characters in their current states. For Nicole, it’s a simpler, dizzy performance of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” done with her sister and mother about the escape from a relationship. For Charlie, it’s a bittersweet moment, a moment full of depth brought on by the singing of “Being Alive”. And while the two may still have big issues to work on, the little moments are what make life better, for them and their son.

Marriage Story is one of the best films of the year, hands down. There is something for everyone to connect to, whether big or small, in what amounts to essentially viewing someone’s therapy session play out on camera. Driver and Johansson are likely guarantees for Oscar nominations, and Baumbach will be mentioned up and down for writing and directing (though he may have to fight his wife, Greta Gerwig, for the final spot at the Oscars). Nevertheless, what Baumbach builds here is nothing short of spectacular, a gorgeous look at humanity through the lens of every emotion imaginable. Emotions that you’ll likely feel right along with the film, for better or worse.

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