By Adam Ray Palmer
What a second day at Venezia76, first we had the head-spinner Ad Astra, and now we have the gut-wrencher from Noah Baumbach… Marriage Story.
Baumbach is no stranger to dysfunctional family tales following his 2017 picture, The Meyerowitz Stories, and now two years later he’s at it again.
Marriage Story is about exactly what the two-word title suggests. We follow a marital couple from New York, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), who have begun the separation process but still trying to carefully keep their family together for the sake of their son Henry and also their blossoming careers.
Charlie is a control-freak, theatre director who must give out written notes to every actor in his production when the curtains close. One of those actors is his wife, Nicole, a once famous teen movie star who gave up the LA lifestyle to live in the big apple with her husband and their son. We meet the pair at their marriage counselling session as they narrate the positives about one another but failing to in fact tell each other in person. Instead, they bicker and fall out over the smallest things before Nicole heads off to Los Angeles (where she grew up) to shoot a TV pilot. What happens next is an incisive and compassionate look at a marriage slowly breaking up.
This is Noah Baumbach’s most heart-breaking and complete movie yet. What he gets out of every actor on screen is nothing short of astonishing. Every character leaves their mark on screen. Taking out the leading duo for a minute, the unmatchable Laura Dern plays lawyer Nora Farnshaw, a tough cookie who wipes the floor with anyone who dares to take her on when representing Nicole. She constantly steals scenes throughout, especially when she goes on a tirade of how women face an uphill battle against men no matter what – it’s truly hilarious. A best supporting nod isn’t too farfetched.
The two representatives of Charlie, Bert (Alan Alda) and Jay (Ray Liotta), also leave a huge impression on the movie. Alda provides the softer, human touch as he tries to navigate the unyielding Nora. Jay on the other hand is a brash, hot-headed attorney who goes toe-to-toe with Farnshaw in a brilliant court scene, only leaving their clients red-faced with exaggerated stories about one another.
But the two real stars of the film are of course the central protagonists. This movie is littered with heavy dialogue scenes mixed with witty quips throughout, with Driver and Johansson effortlessly delivering. The duo bounce off each other spectacularly, and thoroughly convince the audience that the pair really could be going through this. Scarlett is a tour-de-force, giving a performance that really deserves a golden statuette to sit upon her mantlepiece. She flips between a doting mother to a feisty go-getter in an instant, using her abrupt natural New Yorker tongue to get the most out of her lines.
Opposite her in this bicoastal divorce is the perfectionist Charlie played by the fast-becoming leading man of the moment, Adam Driver. He’s a giant of a man, adding to the heart-breaking feels as he breaks down and cries in a monumental scene that literally defines ‘how best to act when playing a quarrelling married couple’.
Standing at nearly two and a half hours long, you can’t help but pre-judge this movie for being a potential laborious drama. However, Baumbach ensures that throughout this picture, at pivotal times, he chucks in a memorable scene that swiftly moves on the narrative to the next act – just like a play of Charlie’s. There are emotional heart-tugging sequences but also light-hearted scenes that let the audience in on their true personalities, alluding to why the battling couple once fell in love. A knife scene near the end of the film with Charlie is particularly a notable crowd-pleaser.
There’s just something about this film that I can’t quite put my finger on, and perhaps that’s the point. It’s harrowing on one hand as you never want to be in their position, but also amusing to see how quirky individuals deal with certain situations. Marriage Story is unquestionably Noah Baumbach’s most accomplished film to date, building on the stellar work he turned in with The Meyerowitz Stories. It’s a movie about good people at their worst, and perhaps sometimes feeling wincingly too close to home as it’s based on the director’s recent split with Jennifer Jason Leigh. Sometimes when your poor your heartache into something you love doing, you get a masterpiece out of it – and Noah has certainly achieved that.
Cineroom’s rating: 5 stars
Marriage Story will be released in UK cinemas and on Netflix later this year – certificate 15