Take a look at any film critic’s Top 10 List of 2019 and you will certainly find Noah Baumbach's “Marriage Story” at the top. A guaranteed nominee for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards and a likely contender to win, this is a film I wanted to adore and rave about to everyone, yet sadly the film falls short of glory to be fully deserving.
“Marriage Story” tells the break-up story of Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City who battle for custody of their son Henry in the process of a bitter divorce. Nicole is an actress who moves to Los Angeles after leading a role in a television series, where Charlie struggles to stay on his feet after moving to L.A. from New York during the legal process to stay connected with his son.
What’s interesting about this film is that both characters are very unlikeable and clearly selfish and bad romantic partners. Charlie’s career ambition as a New York play director drives him more than his marriage while Nicole’s own selfishness and insecurity make her just as inadequate of a spouse. We never feel attached to one lead character over the other, which allows us as an audience to observe their marriage objectively and neutrally. There’s never a “good guy” in the pair which serves as a challenge for the audience in gravitating to one or the other out of the two.
While having selfish protagonists can make the viewing experience more enjoyable in certain films, in a story that is reliant on heavy emotions it’s important to have characters we genuinely admire in order to experience an emotional investment. It’s hard not to empathize with Charlie and Nicole in their toxic divorce, yet I wish they were more likable to enhance the emotional struggles this couple goes through to the viewer. Baumbach gives each character more attention and attributes than most filmmakers bother, yet we aren’t able to like them simply because of how selfish they are as people and spouses.
Baumbach crafts a strong script that finds room for charm even in depressing situations and allows us to learn about the personalities and motivations of Charlie and Nicole, yet he fails to make us root for them as a couple. The entire film we’re aware that they should divorce and we immediately get the impression that they are not meant for each other. The only timer we ever really feel as if the divorce is an unfortunate event is towards the end when we get a well-executed full circle to the opening.
Having a couple that we care about and want to see happy together would have been a far more effective narrative due to generating a stronger connection with the audience. The writer/director also centers his film more on the individual personal journeys of Charlie and Nicole and not their relationship. Not enough screen time captures the two together in a way that we can experience any unique features that make this couple unique nor do we see enough of their backstory together that allows us to see what the couple was like before they started the divorce process.
The remarkable performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are what make “Marriage Story” a film worth celebrating. Actors belonging to two of the biggest blockbuster franchises in entertainment history (“The Avengers” and “Star Wars”) who are still capable of portraying real-life people in films that rely solely on story and not spectacle is a testament to the talents of these two actors. While not portraying likable characters, each actor exemplifies the brutal stress and sorrow of divorce and how it breaks down the soul.
The two leads memorize lengthy scenes of dialogue and hit every note pitch-perfectly. One extended sequence in particular in which the couple has a loud, fiery argument is acting at its purest and finest, both actors' emotions so real and accurate it becomes infectious to watch. Johansson and Driver make every second of the film worthwhile due to the sheer talent they possess in bringing these characters and their struggles to life.
Laura Dern does great work as Nicole’s tough-as-nails, passive-aggressive attorney, her character similar to her iconic Renada Klein in “Big Little Lies.” Dern provides some comedic relief as well, her strong personality always present in every scene. Veteran actors Ray Liotta and Alan Alda also soar as Charlie’s different attorneys, each embodying their characters in a spot-on manner.
This is very much an actor’s movie, similar to “Kramer v. Kramer” and “Revolutionary Road.” The film struggles to find its own voice and is clearly inspired by several other films. This is more of a divorce story than a marriage story, for we never really get to see the actual marriage at hand. We get the impression early on from its poignant opening montage in which both Charlie and Nicole narrate what they love about each other that we’ll get to see the past and present of a beautiful marriage slowly fall apart, yet instead the film focuses solely on their divorce.
“Marriage Story” is one of 2019’s most acclaimed films. While you won’t find better performances in almost any other film this year, it still struggles to deliver the emotional punch and kick necessary to touch something new. Noah Baumbach is clearly a gifted filmmaker who captures the nuances in human interactions and details each scene and his effort is present in every scene, he just doesn't execute as great of a narrative as he could have.
Final Grade: B+
Dominic LeRose is a staff writer for The Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.