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Review: Marriage Story (2019)

Marriage Story (2019)

Directed by: Noah Baumbach

Premise: A couple (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) goes through a divorce. They struggle to maintain civility while negotiating custody of their son (Azhy Robertson) and debating the causes of the divorce.

What Works: Kramer v Kramer was released in 1979 and it was among the first mainstream films to deal with divorce which had suddenly become more common due to changes in the law and in the culture. Forty years later, Marriage Story presents a similar story of a dissolving relationship and the ensuing custody fight and Marriage Story is every bit as good as its predecessor. Just as Kramer v Kramer was about the realities of divorce in the 1970s, Marriage Story is about divorce in the 2010s and this film is a smart portrait of life in this particular time. Marriage Story is led by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as the couple. Driver and Johansson are terrific together and individually as a New York theater director and an actress who share a son. The film starts with the relationship on the rocks and when work brings Johansson’s character to Los Angeles she formally files for divorce, forcing her husband to commute from coast to coast. While the circumstances of Marriage Story are specific to the entertainment industry, the underlying issues between the couple are quite recognizable and the husband and wife are presented with a great deal of empathy. Driver and Johansson are believable as a couple and they gauge their performances terrifically. The two of them try to be civil for their son’s stake but we can see the tension underneath their interactions and the extended dialogue scene in which long standing resentments finally come to a head is wonderfully staged and acted. Another exceptional aspect of Marriage Story is the way in which the film dramatizes the process of divorce and the way the legal process seems designed to drain the couple of any mutual goodwill while doing the same to their finances. Laura Dern is cast as the wife’s attorney and Dern is great, exuding false empathy for her client to encourage Johansson’s character to push for more money. Also impressive in a small role is Alan Alda as the husband’s attorney. Alda’s character grasps the human cost of divorce but his compassion impairs his ability to represent his client in a system that rewards unscrupulousness. 

What Doesn’t: There is a popular format in relationship dramas in which one person is poisonous or abusive and the story is about the other party finding the will and the resources to extricate themselves from the relationship. While that is a valid narrative, Marriage Story is not that kind of tale. This relationship collapses because these two want different things and they are unwilling to compromise and unable to find a mutually satisfying solution. Marriage Story may frustrate some viewers because it does not give the audience a clear cut hero to cheer for or a villain to hate. The ambiguity is the point. The one notable flaw of Marriage Story is its music score by Randy Newman. The music is good but it is at odds with the film’s naturalistic style. It is often intrusive and undermines the illusion of the film.

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: Marriage Story is an outstanding relationship drama. The film tells its story well and Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver on the material. This film is a portrait of contemporary relationships that, while somewhat optimistic, has a great deal of insight and humanity.

Episode: #784 (January 12, 2020)