Friday, December 6, 2019

Marriage Story

Offering as much commentary on divorce at large as its effect on his two main characters in Marriage Story, writer/director Noah Baumbach explores the dissolving marriage of theater director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) and actress Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) who struggle through change in humorous and heartbreaking ways. While their separation is mutually understood from the opening scene, a particularly good use of narration that allows us to get a sense of both characters, Charlie seems less able to deal with the changing realities of the family dynamic while Nicole relocates from New York to Los Angeles with their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) for work on a television pilot and begins to take the lead in the divorce by hiring a ball-busting attorney (Laura Dern).

There is still affection between the pair, but there is also hurt, resentment, and anger which only increases as the divorce becomes more litigious. Providing some of the film's more humorous scenes, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta both appear at times as Charlie's lawyers taking on Dern's character in court (proving the old adage that the only ones who win in divorce proceedings are the lawyers).

I'll admit, I found myself taking one side of the split fairly early, although various revelations did soften my resolve as the script makes arguments for each character and allows us to examine events from multiple perspectives. The roller coaster of the Barber's divorce showcases the humanity of each character and their limitations both as individuals and as a couple. While the film is filled with other minor characters including various members of Nicole's extended family and Charlie's theater company, the film really boils down to Nicole, Charlie, and Henry and how the separation tears at each of them in different ways.

In many ways Marriage Story feels like Baumbach's take on a Woody Allen film, albeit with less self-referential jokes and ticks from the leading man. Driver is good here, but I struggled to buy the nasally oafish figure as the charismatic center of his New York family (but then again, I also don't quite understand some Star Wars fans love of Kylo Ren). Johansson is strong here as the more emotional, but also more methodical and goal-oriented, half of the couple. Over the course of the film, the two will be comfortable, awkward, humorous, and abrasive to each other. In many ways they are perfect foils for the broken lives each views quite differently. While very specific to the events of this family, Baumbach is able to tap into common themes in divorces without falling back on cliche or tired caricatures.

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