Run Time: 2hr and 16min
Rating: R for Language Throughout and Sexual References
A Modern American Classic in the Making.
**** (out of ****)
Autopsy (n.) - inspection and dissection of a body after death, as for determination of the cause of death; postmortem examination
an analysis of something after it has been done or made
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story makes a connection, in one line of dialogue from a lawyer hired to represent one of the married-but-now-separated couple, that suggests it rather fits both of the definitions above. It obviously isn’t an actual post-death medical procedure, but it cuts deeply enough into the central eroding marriage that Baumbach might as well be taking a scalpel to its remains, taking note of everything that was fatal into a (figurative) tape recorder, and preparing it for burial in some way. By the end, one thing is clear: There really is no hope for this marriage.
For the first twenty minutes, though, Baumbach frames the relationship only as it can be framed: As the observations of two people so intimately familiar with each other that they can immediately clock each other’s strengths and, in doing so, perhaps highlight the few weaknesses that might come as a result of being in a marriage. What Charlie (Adam Driver) loves about his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and what, in reverse, Nicole loves about her husband begin to look quite a bit similar – if not in the content of what is said, then in the attitude with which it has been formulated in the minds of these two people.
We learn that Charlie loves Nicole’s fastidious listening skills, her determination to be the most generous actress with whom to work, her desire to play – and genuinely to play – with their son Henry (Azhy Robertson), and her competitiveness (particularly at the game of Monopoly, which is later mirrored in the very real legal battle that ensues). Likewise, we learn that Nicole loves Charlie’s fastidious organization kills, his determination to be the fairest theatre director for whom to perform, his desire to be a sturdy presence for Henry, and his competitiveness (particularly at the game of Monopoly, etc.).
In other words, this early introduction to their marriage indicates a real, compatible romance, but these words, we learn as we go, are the unspoken observations of a kind of homework assignment. The reality is pretty grim: Charlie and Nicole are in the midst of divorce negotiations at the tail end of a trial separation. They aren’t happy with their mediator, who simply tries for the duration of the first meeting we see to get them to read those observations in this safe space. Charlie thinks his is well-written enough to read. Nicole neither wants to read her own nor hear what Charlie has written. Having heard them ourselves, we realize that they sound very similar. This simply causes another small pang of recognition that these two are so almost completely compatible that any differences could collapse the whole charade.
We also, because of the performances from Driver and Johansson, desperately want this marriage not to be a charade. These are both generally good, deeply flawed human beings, each with their own opinions about what has caused this eventual rift. For Nicole, it is a refusal from Charlie, in part due to his loyalty to a theatre production that may move to Broadway, to consider any other kind of life with her, which is why she takes on a TV pilot shooting in Los Angeles for several weeks. If the pilot goes to series, it could mean moving there permanently. To that effect, she takes Henry with her, enrolling him in a school to give the impression of permanence.
For Charlie, it is, well, a refusal to accept Nicole’s reality and to consider him, his wife, and their son anything but “a New York family.” Even as the pilot goes to series and every remaining member of this family – which basically means her family (Julie Hagerty as her mother Sandra and Merritt Wever as her sister Cassie, both superb and naturally funny), as he has no siblings and absentee parents with whom he has no relationship – resides in Los Angeles for months that encroach upon a full year and his own production fails, he refuses to accept reality. These are a man in denial and a woman in full control of her choices, and this is when we realize that, perhaps, they aren’t quite as compatible as we anticipated.
At first, they agree not to use lawyers, but when great distance becomes a factor, that option is no longer viable. Nicole hires Nora (Laura Dern, excellent as a human ball of energy who can navigate severe situations with some cookies and tea), a high-profile attorney of celebrities who went through a similar battle of her own. Reluctantly, Charlie eventually follows suit, first hiring the kind but ineffectual Bert Spitz (Alan Alda, who provides the observation at the beginning of this review: “Divorce is like a death without the body”) – whose name kind of requires one to say the entire thing – and eventually hiring the ruthless and expensive Jay (Ray Liotta, who digs into his character like so much apple pie).
It eventually becomes a film defined by big, dialogue-driven set pieces, such as a nearly ten-minute prologue (captured, rather boldly, in a single take by Baumbach and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, whose compositions find a middle ground between warm and stark) in which Johansson’s Nicole describes meeting and falling in love with Charlie or a stunning late-film performance of “Being Alive” (from Furth and Sondheim’s Company) by Driver whose start is clearly scripted but whose completion feels strangely impromptu. These are both exceptionally detailed and raw performances from actors who are bearing their souls to each other (One can only imagine what the come-down process was for Driver and Johansson – whether, for instance, they followed a shouting match with some time apart and a silly sitcom).
What results is a portrait of an entire marriage, and even though we don’t actually see the Meet Cute that occurred or the intervening years of building a relationship, Baumbach provides a good reminder that the dissolution of a marriage offers just as much insight into the dynamics of a relationship as some generational story of that entire relationship. The reports surrounding the development of this film are pretty clear: This was inspired, in part, by Baumbach’s marriage to and divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Whether that means Marriage Story is semi-autobiographical is beside the point. It is still deeply, consequentially personal, with a vast emotional scope and a tight, intimate treatment.
(Review by Joel Copling)