Movie review: Divorce tale 'Marriage Story' a perfect union of writing and acting

  • Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), left, and Charlie (Adam Driver) watch their plan for an amicable divorce dissolve in "Marriage Story."

    Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), left, and Charlie (Adam Driver) watch their plan for an amicable divorce dissolve in "Marriage Story." Courtesy of Netflix

  • Unhappiness builds between Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), left, and Charlie (Adam Driver) in "Marriage Story."

    Unhappiness builds between Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), left, and Charlie (Adam Driver) in "Marriage Story." Courtesy of Netflix

 
By Lindsey Bahr
Associated Press
Posted11/15/2019 6:00 AM

"Marriage Story" - ★ ★ ★ ★

Noah Baumbach is a keen observer of life's banalities. His films relish in the strange and wonderful and awkward things people say and do in the course of the day. But his real magic is turning ordinariness into cinema.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He can take that feeling of postgraduate paralysis or middle-age stasis, topics that are not exactly unexplored in film, and make them feel fresh and more lifelike and lasting than even your own memories.

His worlds are ones you feel like you already live in, even if he's exploring an ugly moment that everyone would rather forget as soon as possible, as in his latest "Marriage Story," which is actually about divorce.

It's a subject that Baumbach has taken on before, in "The Squid in the Whale," although this time he's not coming at it through kids' eyes, but the adults. And it is a devastating and hilariously authentic look at a fracturing marriage, the casualties, the misunderstandings, the feelings and the absurdities of the legal system around it.

The center of this story is a couple, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver). She's an actress from Los Angeles. He's an acclaimed New York theater director. They met in the middle, when she was looking to escape her trajectory after a teen sex comedy and a too-young engagement and he was a promising nobody. She moved to New York and their lives for the next decade became intertwined, through work, marriage and a child, until it broke. There's not exactly one inciting source for the split that we're ever privy to, more like the culmination of 10 years' worth of life that adds up to an untenable unhappiness.

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She's going to Los Angeles with their 8-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) to film a television pilot. He's staying in New York and taking the play that once starred her to Broadway. They're breaking up and they want to do so as painlessly as possible. No lawyers. Equal splits. Dream on, Charlie and Nicole, even nice divorces get ugly -- there's a whole industry there to make sure of it.

"Marriage Story" takes the audience deep into this world, showing how two people fully invested in splitting amicably can get swept up so easily in animosity and legal challenges. And Baumbach has written and cast the divorce lawyers brilliantly, with a crackling Laura Dern as Nora, Nicole's lawyer. Alan Alda plays the sweet, coddling option for Charlie. His alternative is an expensive bulldog played by Ray Liotta.

Baumbach fills "Marriage Story" with a whole ensemble of memorable supporting characters, including Merritt Wever as Nicole's sister and Julie Hagerty as her daffy actress mother.

But make no mistake, the film belongs to Johansson and Driver, who will make your heart ache. Alone, they are excellent. Together, they're on fire.

"Marriage Story" is such a perfect blend of writing, unflashy direction, spot on performances and score (by Randy Newman) that you hardly even notice all the individual ingredients making up the whole. Its triumph is that it just feels like life.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

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Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Merritt Wever, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty

Directed by: Noah Baumbach

Other: A Netflix release. Rated R for language and sexual references. 136 minutes

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