Marriage Story (R) ★★★★ by Jessica DeLong

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver star in “Marriage Story.” (Photo Credit: Netflix)

A story worth seeing

It’s been said, “from great pain comes great art,” and that can easily be said about Noah Baumbach’s latest direction of Marriage Story. Baumbach, who also wrote the film, based the script partially on his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh with whom he shares a son.  The result of his personal exploration is a brilliant film that expertly combines humor and drama as it tackles its themes.

Audiences are first introduced to both main characters through two prepared speeches, accompanied by montages. First, Charlie (Adam Driver, The Report, 2019) lists off the things that he loves about Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit, 2019) and then Nicole reciprocates by listing the lovable traits about Charlie. Charlie is a devoted father and acclaimed theatre director in New York who came from humble origins. Nicole is a former teen movie actress who came from a showbiz family in Los Angeles and now stars in Charlie’s shows despite the potential to be in bigger projects. They appear to be a perfect couple until the end of these love lists when the action cuts to the present and we see that the couple prepared these lists as part of a marriage mediation session. After Nicole is unwilling to read her list aloud for Charlie, she storms out when it appears the mediator is taking Charlie’s side. It’s clear within the first 10 minutes that Charlie and Nicole’s story is at the heart of this film, which…I guess means this film was titled perfectly.

Fortunately, both Driver and Johansson are outstanding in their roles and it would not be surprising to see Oscar nominations for both. They do an excellent job of depicting the sense of love and respect for one another off the bat, but that continuing to be in a marriage is unsustainable. The film is straightforward and relatable for any married couple as they navigate the challenges of life while trying to be their own person, support their spouse and raise a strong family.

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson star in “Marriage Story.” (Photo Credit: Netflix)

After the counseling session, the action cuts to one of Charlie’s off Broadway plays in front of a packed house with Nicole on stage, front and center. Audiences are soon invited to the post-show party where all of the crew gossip is focused on whether Charlie and Nicole are actually getting a divorce. Back at home, Nicole is much more calm and Charlie reiterates that they both want the same things from a divorce and don’t want to get lawyers involved. Charlie is willing to split everything and assumes they will get apartments near each other given they both want what is best for their son, Henry. Nicole agrees and then subtly drops the bomb on Charlie that she’s already planned to head home to L.A. to test for a TV pilot with their son Henry for a few weeks.

The comic relief begins from the moment Nicole touches down in LA, where audiences meet her supportive and funny family. Her mom, Sandra, is played by Julie Hagerty (Instant Family, 2018) and she is a hoot. Sandra’s ‘sidekick’ is Nicole’s sister Cassie who (played by Merritt Weaver, Charlie Says, 2018). Both are trying to fulfill their duty of supporting Nicole and the divorce while suppressing their fondness for Charlie, which leads to a hilarious series of events.

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver star in “Marriage Story.” (Photo Credit: Netflix)

While Sandra watches Henry, Nicole impresses a casting director with her pilot. After Nicole’s audition, one of the producers overhears a conversation about her martial problems and insists she visit her divorce attorney, Nora (Laura Dern, Cold Pursuit, 2019). Dern is fantastic as an over-the-top divorce attorney in a role that brings to mind her character in the HBO series, “Big Little Lies.” Despite her initial reluctance to using lawyers, Nicole’s visit with Nora leads to an escalation in the divorce process. As soon as Charlie lands in L.A. he is greeted warmly by Nicole’s mom and sister and is immediately served his divorce papers by Cassie. This makes for a dramatic, yet somewhat comical scene as Cassie finds out she has to do the ‘serving’ of the papers just minutes before Charlie walks into the house. Charlie realizes he must ‘lawyer up’ ASAP and first meets with a very aggressive divorce attorney played by Ray Liotta (“Shades of Blue,” 2016-2018), before settling on Bert Spitz (Alan Alda, “The Good Fight,” 2018-2019), who has a more delicate approach to his clients. As the divorce process intensifies, so does the friction with Nicole and Charlie.

Baumbach, whose previous work has focused on stories about relationships, has created probably his best film to date with, Marriage Story. His script handles the delicate subject matter brilliantly. Baumbach reportedly shared the script with ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who approved of it. This dramedy is also boosted by great performances from his leads as well as supporting cast. In particular, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda provide much of the comic relief as the array of attorneys who work on the case. In addition to Driver and Johansson, Dern will most likely get awards attention for her role. Netflix came home empty-handed at last year’s Academy Awards, but with Marriage Story, there is a high probability that the film will garner the studio its first taste of Oscar gold.

Bottom Line: Netflix has upped its game this year in the film arena. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s stellar performances coupled with Noah Baumbach’s writing and direction of Marriage Story makes it a must see dramedy.

Credits: Written and directed by Noah Baumbach

Starring: Scarlett Johansson (Nicole Barber), Adam Driver (Charlie Barber), Azhy Robertson (Henry Barber), Laura Dern (Nora Fanshaw), Alan Alda (Bert Spitz), Ray Liotta (Jay Marotta), Julie Hagerty (Sandra), Merritt Weaver (Cassie)

Studio: Netflix

Running Time: 122 minutes

Jessica DeLong © November 30, 2019