By George Grotheer
You begin with privacy — intimacy — with the premise of a couple going through its final motions. You take this premise, add a half-dozen A-listers, throw $18 million at its production, and slip it out with a limited theatrical release, supplemented by prime placement in Netflix’s “new releases” section.
The result is one of the best romantic dramas of the last decade — from a story of divorce.
Marriage Story is a remarkable display of range for each of its lead performers — Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. Johansson, perhaps best known for her role as Natasha Romanoff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, steps back from action for a new chapter in her career. Driver has received high praise for his tormented portrayal of Kylo Ren in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. More on their performances later, though, because the driving force of this story is writer-director Noah Baumbach.
Baumbach is, of course, no stranger to stories of divorce — his parents split when he was young, and his 2005 film The Squid and the Whale is inspired by that event. Marriage Story brings a more mature view of divorce than its Academy Award-nominated predecessor. Baumbach’s 2005 work focuses its attention on the children swept up in divorce; Walt and Frank are drawn into their parents’ conflict, yet they are the collective centerpiece of the film. Marriage Story takes that idea and flips it on its head.
Azhy Robertson plays Henry, the son of Johansson’s Nicole and Driver’s Charlie. While he is indeed a key focal point in the dying weeks of marriage, the film looks closer at the relationship between the feuding spouses than does The Squid and the Whale. By directing attention to the adults, rather than the child, Baumbach shows a more nuanced look at divorce.
In its 137-minute runtime, Marriage Story eyes the nature of divorce from several vantage points. We see mediation, introducing the crucial “what I like” lists. Nicole and Charlie run a trial separation on opposite coasts while Nicole joins a TV pilot and Charlie begins to move his play to Broadway. They agree to split politely, without lawyers, then attorneys get involved — even overstepping the couple by the end of the film. Charlie and Nicole show unity in devotion to Henry, yet emotions come to head in an almost violent argument in Charlie’s apartment. By the film’s epilogue, the couple appear on friendly terms, having settled into lives after marriage. No two divorce stories are the same — and Baumbach successfully approaches the issue from a multitude of angles to present the truth of this story.
Each leading actor was rightfully acclaimed for their performance — each was met with critical praise and major award nominations. With blockbuster roles like Romanoff and Ren under their belts (in very recent audience memory, no less), it wasn’t going to be easy to disappear into these new characters, yet the raw emotion and strength brought by both Johansson and Driver allowed them to slip beneath the surface of Nicole and Charlie — demonstrating their superior skills as performers.
Robertson puts together an unforgettable performance as Henry, while attorneys Nora, Bert, and Jay are expertly portrayed by Academy Award winner Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta. These three were tasked with providing depth to the story, and all rose to the challenge.
There are many reasons why Marriage Story sat on Top-10 lists almost universally in 2019, but elite writing, superb direction, and excellent performances across the board move the film into the upper echelon of films from the last decade.
George Grotheer is a contributor to 641. and a frequent guest analyst on OBP: On Base Podcast.