Noah Baumbach’s been one of the best, most consistent indie voices working in the film world for the better part of two decades now, putting out quietly witty dramedies packing pungent punches of emotion and an earnestness for life few else can match. Wrapping a melancholic bow on 2019, Marriage Story is another great piece in Baumbach’s dramatic vérité repertoire, one that stings and pulls at the heartstrings more than any other so far.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are breathtaking as the title’s couple in question, theatre director Charlie and actor Nicole Barber. After their last attempt at settling their differences amicably in therapy tanks, Nicole leaves their New York home with their kid, Henry, to go back to her LA home and try her hand at acting for the screen again. When Charlie is blindsided by a hungry pro lawyer on the part of Nicole, he forgoes priorities on his upcoming play on Broadway to go all in on salvaging his parental rights by whatever means necessary.
Baumbach’s tender writing and directing suck you in from the very first scene, beautifully crafting a lived-in relationship that’s as real as it gets. This intimate proximity sucker punches its audience as often as it lays the traces of the pair’s fractured marriage, though, rending one’s heart with a tragic, but genuine rawness unlike anything else this year. Driver and Johansson are phenomenal in their roles, living their parts with poignantly real and earned performances knocked up to eleven by Baumbach’s harmonious directing, and as Charlie and Nicole break down and cry from the crushing weight of their divorce’s process, it’s all but guaranteed you’ll eventually join them sobbing as well to the tune of Randy Newman’s lovely musical theme and score.
For the same reasons their marriage buckles under pressure, Marriage Story is a phenomenally realized film about its characters. Charlie and Nicole both brandish their flaws and perspectives relatably, equally pushing you to side with one, turn against the other, and then switch again in a perpetual circle. It’s a testament to Baumbach’s writing just how much you can see where each person is coming from and appreciate both perspectives, especially as things heat up into fits of uncontrollable rage once the film reaches its grueling boiling point.
And as rough as the film can get through its long, but totally deserved 136 minute runtime, Baumbach’s ability to pull back towards quieter, lighter moments further lends credence to Marriage Story’s truly honest existence. While Driver and Johansson have their time to relish their characters simpler joys, Julie Hagerty proves for the hundredth time she’s a comedy secret weapon as Nicole’s quirky mother, Sandra. Martha Kelly additionally strikes gold for a few scenes as a relationship evaluator, and really leaning into the part, Laura Dern plays the hell out of Nicole’s very LA hotshot lawyer.
Beset in mercilessly real melancholy, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson wring two of the most gutting performances of 2019 in Noah Baumbach’s raw, tearful Marriage Story.
A fresh face of tears