The first few minutes of this film are an over-sentimental introduction to the characters through the eyes of their partners. It is a sweet, positive, and loving view, highlighting the romanticism in the relationship despite the fact that circumstances are requiring a change.
The rest of Marriage Story systematically tears this down, as the process of divorce digs up buried resentments and cracks the storybook facade revealing bitter truth. It’s a harrowing and emotional process, driven by what seems at times to be an insane legal system. However, with actors such as Johansson and Driver at the helm, it is also raw and compelling viewing.
Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are in a rough patch. Despite relationship counselling, differing career desires are forcing their marriage apart. As Nicole moves to Los Angeles to pursue a TV opportunity while Charlie stays in New York to manage a theatre company, they struggle with the notion of child custody, and their feelings towards each other.
This really is an actor’s piece. Extended scenes of dialogue punctuate it, at times directly to camera, yet it never feels overly staged. That really is testament both to director Noah Baumbach’s (Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale) craft, both as a writer and director, and the talent that he draws to his projects. He brings enough cinematic flare for it to perfectly balance between the two mediums.
Which makes sense, as Marriage Story is threaded through with both traditions. Be it the careers of both the main characters or the references scattered throughout to cinematic and theatrical works of relationships on the rocks. From Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage to Sondheim’s Company (with a rendition of Being Alive, belted out with consummate skill by Driver), this serves to subtly inform and prime the audience to the disintegration of the relationship, and allow it to be a little theatrical. Hence it doesn’t seem out of place when we do get these articulate and lengthy monologues.
That allows Johansson and Driver space to shine. Both capture the raw emotion of the piece, as it goes through the stages of divorce, running the gamut from despair to rage to acceptance. At times this is uncomfortable viewing as they draw audiences into the turmoil on screen, but there are also lighter comedic moments, adding a varying degree of light and shade to the proceedings. Add to this Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as a parade of divorce lawyers, offering advice ranging from the coldly adversarial to the fatalistically benign, and Marriage Story is an exceptional vehicle for talented performances.
A show stopper for actors, and an emotional ringer for audiences, Marriage Story gives you a front row seat into the breakdown of love.