4 stars (out of 4)
I have no idea what Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s relationship was like before they started shooting Marriage Story. Perhaps they knew each other peripherally because Driver has hosted Saturday Night Live and Johansson is engaged to its co-head writer Colin Jost. Or maybe they met on the awards circuit and casually complimented each other. Either way, I’m now convinced they have a special unspoken bond and will be forever intrinsically linked. Their portrayal of a New York City couple on the brink in this utterly smart and moving heart-wrencher — one of the best films of the year — is just that on-point.
Their names are Charlie and Nicole. And by time we meet them, they’re already in counseling and poised to file for divorce. Charlie (Driver) came from the Midwest with little but his name and then established himself as a well-regarded artistic director in the NYC theater scene. He’s gentle and soft-spoken and isn’t ashamed to admit when he doesn’t know the answer. Nicole (Johansson) is an L.A.-reared actress who once bared her chest in a successful 1990s teen comedy. She’s tight with her single mom and sister. Her skills include opening pickle jars and engaging in conversation with those people on the street that pester you to sign petitions. They’re genetically blessed, supportive, loving and devoted parents to a young son.
Why would these compatible hipster urbanites ever want to split? After all, even their babysitter gawks at their perfection. Over the course of 135 minutes, we learn why. Astutely observant writer/director Noah Baumbach — who, it probably should be noted, used to be married to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh and is now the longtime partner of Lady Bird and Little Women director Greta Gerwig — refuses to melodramatize the reasons. The problems simply come into focus via a series of relatable snapshots. She wants to move to L.A. to revive her Hollywood career and he doesn’t; he has difficulty focusing; she’s not great about confrontation. These revealing and dialogue-rich scenes have a theatrical quality, as if we’re watching the phenomenal Driver and Johansson pour out their hearts and souls live on a stage.
Neither character is a hero or villain. At times, Johansson comes off like a sympathetic working mother desperate to move forward with her life only to morph into someone a bit more emotionally manipulative. Same with Driver, who just wants to settle the divorce amicably until he realizes the weight of the custody battle. Their respective bulldog divorce lawyers — played by the great Laura Dern and Ray Liotta in scene-stealing supporting roles — bring out the worst in them. You can tell a lot of people by the company they hire.
A marriage, of course, can’t be defined by a single emotion (or by a legal certificate). It’s an all-consuming force that can lead to euphoric rushes and eat away at your insides, sometimes within moments of each other. There are laughs and tears galore. Marriage Story astutely encapsulates these complicated feelings. One scene that opens with Charlie and Nicole exchanging sincere pleasantries ends with a frustrated Charlie punching a hole through his drywall.
Indeed, as the couple’s issues are peeled away, layer by layer, the actors become increasingly vulnerable as their nerves become exposed. Both Driver and Johansson give career-best performances here. And though awards shouldn’t necessarily be the end-game, the time is now to wager good money that Johansson will land her first-ever Oscar nomination.
It’s no coincidence that Marriage Story is working the fall film festival circuit with high-profile premieres in Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York. This is champion-caliber, thought-provoking work, and one that requires deep rumination and multiple viewings. (How convenient that it will air on Netflix in a few months!) Watch it once to take in the melancholy; watch it twice to process and appreciate the magnificence.
Marriage Story, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, will open in theaters November 6 and be available to stream on Netflix December 6.
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