Marriage Story (2019)
It is refreshing to see a film that can both warmly respect and ruthlessly dissect the institution of marriage. While every marriage is unique, there are universal scenarios that can signal their demise. Two of these are central to Marriage Story (2019): the film forensically examines what happens when one partner’s ego swallows another, then shows the destructive force that is unleashed when lawyers come between otherwise still-caring partners.
The storyline is simple, linear, and dialogue-heavy. In the opening minutes we see respected theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver) and his increasingly successful actress wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in the middle of a marital mediation session. He is opening a new play on Broadway while she will be taking their young son to Los Angeles to star in a TV pilot. The session stalls despite their obvious regard for each other and their commitment to avoid lawyers in a marriage split.
Classic marital tension lines become palpably clear. Charlie and Nicole met when he was a high-profile director and she a theatre novice, and this imbalance of egos remain embedded in all aspects of their relationship. Although a loving father, the self-absorbed Charlie had an affair which is now being weaponised as she asserts her identity and needs. She decides to engage a lawyer forcing him to follow suit or lose custody of their young son; the communication drawbridge is pulled up as the lawyers amplify every marital issue into a war cry on an ever more blood-splattered battlefield.
Nothing new here, you might say, except for two bright lights in a dark place: Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. He is perfect in playing the broad faced deer-in-the-spotlight hapless male, confused over his marital and parental mess-ups…but he sings a beautiful song. She is brilliant in playing a wife no longer willing to be invisible despite still loving the man she married. An ensemble of lawyers include a benignly caring advisor (Alan Alda) and ruthless warriors who take no prisoners (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta).
You don’t need to be a divorce voyeur to find this well-trodden story highly absorbing, mostly because the two stars make it hard to take sides. Charlie’s weaknesses are not unforgiveable and his love for his son and wife continue. Nicole has a right to her own independent future but still feels strongly about him. If lawyers were not involved, things could be very different. Marriage Story is an insightful, witty, and sad portrait of how easily a marital fairytale can turn to a nightmare.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Stars: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Alan Alda, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta