New York-based filmmaker Noah Baumbach has been working since the mid-1990s, debuting with 1995’s Kicking and Screaming. In 1997, he wrote and directed Mr. Jealousy followed by Highball, which he later disowned due to some production issues. Additionally, Baumbach worked alongside filmmaker Wes Anderson as a co-writer on Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox. His 2005 film The Squid and the Whale earned Baumbach his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Interestingly enough, Baumbach also co-wrote 2012’s Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, the same year he directed Frances Ha. During post-production on 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories, Baumbach decided that his next project would focus on divorce and its effects. After doing much research, including interviewing divorce lawyers, judges, and mediators, his next film was released to Netflix in 2019. That film was the family drama, Marriage Story.
Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a successful theater director in New York married to former teen actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). Unfortunately, the two of them are going through a divorce, and it’s taking a toll on their lives. Nicole gets a job on a TV series in LA, so she takes their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her. Despite them agreeing to not hire lawyers, Nicole hires family lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) to represent her. Charlie flies to LA to visit but is served divorce papers, so he consults with lawyer Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta). He decides not to hire Jay because of his brash nature, but he still needs a lawyer according to Nora. He eventually hires the more empathetic Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), but things soon spiral out of control when arguing custody. No matter what, these events will change their lives forever.
Going into this, I knew almost nothing about the filmmaker, though after seeing this, I want to see more. Given who’s making it, Marriage Story is an honest and real depiction of what it’s like going through a divorce. The performances, especially from Driver and Johansson, are some of the best I’ve seen in quite some time. When Driver and Johansson are screaming and arguing with each other over their marriage, it feels so real and authentic. Plus, the film never fully sides with one over the other, showing them at their best and worst moments equally. Also, Azhy Robertson gives a great child performance as a kid who’s unfortunately caught in the middle. Dern, Liotta, and Alda all contribute great performances, as well as Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, and Wallace Shawn. This is definitely one of the best-acted films in 2019.
Directing-wise, Baumbach’s direction is somewhat simplistic, but it adds to the realism and authenticity of the subject matter. While the film shifts in tone throughout, bouncing between dry humor and hard-hitting drama, it never feels disjointed. Rather, it flows naturally and feels like the tonal shifts are more consistent versus the tonal whiplash in Jojo Rabbit. Going back to the simplistic filmmaking, Randy Newman’s score goes well with the film, feeling somber but not overwhelming. While I believe most people have enjoyed this film, it seems like much of the praise is on the performances. I feel that most people are probably put off by the subject matter, which is a fair assessment. However, I welcome films that challenge audiences and tackle the more difficult subject matter since life can be difficult. Overall, Marriage Story is a well-acted and well-written take on something all too real.
Watch Marriage Story on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/title/80223779