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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Dan's Review: Johansson and Driver triumph in "Marriage Story"

Nov 27, 2019 04:16PM ● By Dan Metcalf

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story - © 2019 Netflix.

Marriage Story (Netflix)

Rated R for language throughout and sexual references.

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Azhy Robertson, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Mark O'Brien, Matthew Shear, Brooke Bloom, Kyle Bornheimer, Mickey Sumner, Wallace Shawn, Martha Kelly, Amir Talai.

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach.



Too often, failed relationships in film are depicted in stark opposition between right/wrong, good/bad. As we experience breakups, our perspective right vs. wrong often depends on which party we align with, be it a close relative, friend or our own gender bias. I’m no different, as I’ve seen best friends and family members go through a painful divorce and truly believe those closest to me have been the “real” victims (even though I know many breakups are one-sided affairs, with abuse, rampant infidelity and substance abuse in play). The truth is, we rarely get an honest, objective glimpse of both sides of a breakup. Marriage Story, a new film from Noah Baumbach is perhaps the closest thing we may ever get to this objective truth.

The movie begins with two declarations from married couple Nicole and Charlie Barber (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver), given as narration over scenes from their family life in New York City, including their shared experiences with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson). The narrations are declarations of love, each outlining the finer qualities of the other’s spouse. At first, it would seem that Nicole and Charlie have an ideal, loving relationship but it is soon revealed that the declarations are part of a counseling exercise and their marriage is far from perfect. Charlie is an avant-garde theater director whose work has taken precedence over Nicole’s acting career, even though she stars in many of his acclaimed Off-Broadway productions. Nicole has given up her Hollywood career after achieving mild success in one of those raunchy teen comedies (i.e. “American Pie”) more than a decade ago. With a new opportunity to return to Hollywood to star in a successful series, Nicole and Charlie are at odds with what’s best for their family and their own careers. Charlie is awarded a major arts grant, making his presence in New York even more necessary. Here is where the crux of the breakup lies; neither party can advance their individual careers without the other making a major sacrifice of their own career. When Nicole takes Henry to live with her mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty) in California, she retains the skilled, brutal, take-no-prisoners divorce attorney Nora (Laura Dern), who specializes in high profile celebrity cases. Charlie is forced to retain his own council and first selects the affordable Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) who turns out to be no match for Nora. Charlie is forced to employ his own bulldog lawyer and retains the services of the equally ruthless Jay (Ray Liotta). As the divorce goes to litigation, the nastiness increases until Nicole and Charlie break down into a major argument away from court, coming to terms with their failures and hopes for the future.

Marriage Story is one of the best films of the year with two powerful lead performances from Johansson and Driver. The raw emotion that spans a wide spectrum of a breakup between two people who still love each other is moving and honest, without crawling through some the common, morose divorce clichés seen in other “divorce” movies. Noah Baumbach’s script speaks from his own New York City upbringing, featuring successful entertainers and creative artists as main characters, which may not be identifiable for most folks who live between the coasts. This may come across as some sort of elitist experience, but the authenticity of a relationship in peril is universal.

Perhaps the real genius of Baumbach’s film is its ability to make the audience root for both parties in the divorce and feel sincerely connected to their humanity and love that transcends the tragedy of separation. Marriage Story also taught me a new perspective on love and families, even in the face of a painful divorce.

"Marriage Story" Trailer