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NYFF Review: Marriage Story

by Murtada Elfadl

What happens to the love once a marriage ends? In his latest film Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach charts the dissolution of a marriage from the time it starts to falter to the breaking point when the couple in question Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are actively wishing death upon each other. The title is a clever play on divorce as we are supposed to find out what they once loved about each other by the end.

The film builds the memory of intimacy in throwaway moments....

Nicole knowing what food to order for Charlie while they are deep in negotiations at their lawyers’ office. Offering to cut his hair when he drops their child back at her place as they are fighting over custody. On the flip side it shows how trivial bits of information can come to bite the feuding marrieds in a divorce case; how they can use that intimate knowledge of each other to build a case against each and win points in the battle.

As the proceedings continue, we watch in horror as two people with the best intentions to amicably divorce while keeping a sheen of civility can end up in an acrimonious war where no one survives with any dignity. The details that chart those battle lines are as finely observed as the ones showing us the intimate relationship that used to be. Baumbach works in territories well known to him, not just as a divorced father but also by setting the story within the artistic communities in New York and LA. Nicole is an actress relocating to LA for a TV show, Charlie is an avant garde theater director preparing his first transfer to Broadway. Of course any similarities to real famous people who we all might know are coincidental and entirely not intentional.

Marriage Story is a wife vs husband story, and a New York vs LA story. I kept laughing as Baumbach clearly showed his bias against LA. Even as a New Yorker, I realize there's more to it than just the one thing every character repeats as a positive. It’s a funny running joke though. The film is also biased in giving us mostly Charlie’s point of view; clearly being on his side as the acrimony escalates, except for a last coda that implies he might have been wrong sometimes, too. That comes too late since for more than 2 hours Baumbach showed his frustration with Nicole’s side of the story. It is so biased that I found the big scene that festival crowds have been buzzing about extraneous and unnecessary despite Driver’s superb performance.

Johansson digs deeper and is marvelous as a woman making sense of her life as she goes along. Her moments are more precise, more controlled both in the writing and the performance, ultimately that enhances them and showcases her as the clear acting MVP. In a smaller part as Nicole’s very LA lawyer Laura Dern is a big crowd pleaser from her first appearance. Baumbach gives her great speeches and she plays them to the hilt. However the role is limited and doesn’t provide her many shades to play. 

What keeps the film from being great is that imbalance between the two points of view. It’s evident even in scenes that play well. Did we really need to see the social worker's visit to Charlie in almost real time? The payoff might be strong sometimes however stretching some scenes just to enhance one character’s perspective over the other seems indulgent. In building intimacy and rancor out of specific precise moments, Baumbach's writing is sublime, his camera is expansive in allowing the actors space to work and the audience room to take it in. More rigorous work was needed in balancing the perspectives.

Marriage Story plays the NYFF twice on Saturday October 12th and opens in select cities on November 6th. It begins streaming on Netflix on December 6th

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Reader Comments (13)

Johansson the MVP? What. The movie clearly belongs to Adam Driver.

October 10, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

Mary, Mary, you are quite contrary. We all know Johanssen will beat Zellwegger at the oscars, so denying Driver his clear MVP citation is not necessary to boost her chances.

October 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBeyonsayWhat?!

Bey & Beyonsay -- are you the same person? I agree that Driver is the MVP. I also think the movie is GREAT. But I always appreciate a review from a smart person willing to be contrary but still thoughtful and not contrarian on purpose.

Murtada -- i do agree that the film favors Charlie but don't agree that it's bias is that strong. Once you get her whole monologue to Dern you begin to see her side and some of her missteps are clearly based on what you're saying about " making sense of her life as she goes along." which I think makes her very sympathetic despite the pain she causes.

October 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I definitely want to see this as I'm a fan of Noah Baumbach as I'm also eager for what Scarlett does in the film.

October 10, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I appreciated this review esp the bit about Dern,i've not heard anywere that she has no shading to her character is tat a possible hindrance to winning the Oscar.

In most relationships in life i've found 1 partner gets more sympathy and handle it worse,there are those friends with cards,flowers,chats at midnight,blind date arranging,you know the 1's,trying to make you feel better

The other seems to get less sympathy and does ok..

October 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

It makes its South Florida debut on Sunday at Miami Film Festival Gems. I'll post my comments here.

October 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAlfred

They're saying this is for Adam Driver what Kramer vs Kramer was for Dustin Hoffman. More about him than about her. Will Academy go full into this (picture, direction, leading and supporting actor/actress, screenplay)? Scarlett, to me, is the open question. By now it's Driver vs Phoenix for best actor.

October 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMelchiades

Seeing this at The Milwaukee Film Festival on October 29th. Really excited.

October 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

I think I liked it...a similar amount as you did. A lot but with reservations. Similar reservations actually. Major frustration was too how finely detailed the relationship and what binded them together and its falling apart is only to leave Nicole a bit on the sidelines.

I wouldn't necessarily say it's biased against Nicole. I found it to paint Charlie with enough flaws (if anything, I think Driver's performance makes Charlie more sympathetic than the writing does lol). I would say instead it just doesn't extend Nicole the same amount of empathy it does for Charlie. So I understand why unfortunately some end up seeing Nicole as the more aggressive one even though I firmly understood everything from her point of view throughout.

Mini-shutout to Alda, whom I loved and thought did absolute wonders in his what, 3 or 4 scenes.

Great review!

October 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Alex - I agree about Alda, so warm and lovely. So are Merritt Weaver and Julie Hagerty.

October 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

Sort of agree with the first two comments which I thought were reasonable, but since they were dismissed harshly, i’ll Just say good review. Will be a fun one to watch awards-wise.

October 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLaquanda

I liked but did not love Judy so I am excited to see what Scarlett brings to the table. Beautifully written review as always Murtada.

October 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Julie Hagerty...sigh

October 12, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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