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Marriage Story (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Marriage Story


Starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Azhy Robertson, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Mark O’Brien, Matthew Shear, Brooke Bloom, Kyle Bornheimer, Mickey Sumner, Martha Kelly, Matthew Maher, Annie Hamilton, Ayden Mayeri, Mary Hollis Inboden, Matthew Shear, Roslyn Ruff, Albert Jones and Wallace Shawn.

Screenplay by Noah Baumbach.

Directed by Noah Baumbach.

Distributed by Netflix. 136 minutes. Rated R.

There are few things in the world more devastating than a marriage coming to an end. Even if the breakup is relatively amicable, it still brings up raw emotions, dashed hopes, property issues, recriminations and feelings of one-upmanship. If there are children involved it becomes exponentially more difficult.

Divorce is messy, angry, spiteful and emotionally charged. It is usually devastating to the people going through the split. But, honestly, it’s not nearly as interesting to anyone else as it is to the two people it is happening to.

Marriage Story, the new film by acclaimed filmmaker Noah Baumbach (The Squid & the Whale, While We’re Young, The Meyerwitz Stories) honestly should be called Divorce Story. We see almost no footage of the couple when they were happy – and what we do see is mostly in flashback in the first five minutes of the film, prompted by an exercise where their mediator asks the couple to write up a list of what they like about the other one.

It is apparently loosely (or perhaps not so loosely) based upon Baumbach’s divorce with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. The relationship exploded soon after the couple filmed the movie Greenberg which came out in 2010he wrote and directed it; she had a supporting role – because Baumbach got involved with his younger leading lady Greta Gerwig. This infidelity is mentioned several times in Marriage Story, though its importance is somewhat downplayed. They make it seem like the affair was a one-time thing. In real life Baumbach and Gerwig are still a couple.

Marriage Story is a warts-and-all look at the fracturing of a relationship, joining such classic films as Scenes from a Marriage, Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman, Annie Hall, The War of the Roses and even Baumbach’s own film The Squid and the Whale. Is it a coincidence that four of those films are from the 1970s? I don’t know. However, Marriage Story feels like a movie from the ‘70s – and I mean that as a definite compliment, that may have been the best decade in filmmaking history.

Marriage Story shows all the pettiness, the ugliness, the anger and recrimination of the situation. Honestly, both characters act unlikable as often as not, making it hard to embrace either one. (Personally, I found him pricklier, but they both have their moments.)

He is Charlie Barber (Adam Driver), a young playwright and director who is starting to make big strides in New York theater, including receiving a huge grant and the opening of his first Broadway play. She is Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson), an up-and-coming actress who gave up her promising film career to become his leading lady both on and off the stage. Years later, they have a young son they dote over, but the relationship had been going cold even before his affair.

She wants to go back to California to get her career back on the fast track, he wants to stay in New York. He wants to try to save the marriage, she seems to have mostly moved on. Now it is a situation for expensive lawyers, property settlement and custody terms.

Although they still basically do still love each other, they don’t particularly like each other anymore. And they are not afraid to get down in the dirt to hurt each other. (One thing that he says to her during an argument in his new apartment elicited a gasp in the theater.)

Marriage Story is very well-written, flawlessly performed and well made. It looks at real life and real emotions. But, honestly, it’s not as interesting as Baumbach thinks it is.

At one point in the movie, Charlie is out at a bar in New York, with his theater buddies, bitching about the divorce proceedings. Then he apologizes to them, “I’m sorry, I’m being self-pitying and boring.” His friends assure him he’s not. “It’s just sad,” a friend tells him. But, honestly, Charlie wasn’t wrong.

Let’s face it, no matter how vitally important it is to him, and no matter how much Baumbach thinks he is telling a universal story, everyone has their own stories. The end of a marriage is ugly and devastating, and I’m not sure it’s something that most people want to experience if they are not intimately involved.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: November 15, 2019.

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