Synopsis: Amicable breakup becomes acrimonious divorce.
Marriage Story is the latest from screenwriter and director Noah Baumbach, who insists on making movies about damaged bougies. This film concerns two likable people who think they can have a “good” divorce. Foolish!
Anyway, if you are not familiar with Noah B.’s work, this is a deep dive. Marriage Story features Scarlett Johansson as Nicole and Adam Driver as Charlie. Their marriage has come undone. Charlie is a screenwriter and theater director whose star is on the rise. His work is very serious. Nicole is an LA actress who gave up a promising commercially-viable career to move in with Charlie in NYC and do his bidding. They have a little boy, Henry who is adorable. I liked how Henry was written like a real kid and not a precocious, wise-cracking brat. Azhy Robertson happens to be a better actor than many adults who are graduates of decent theater programs.
Charlie and Nicole are DONE with their marriage. The movie starts with them in a counseling session that is designed to help them move through the imminent divorce without rancor. They are supposed to tell each other what they like about the other person. But the problem is that divorcing couples are pretty firm on not liking the other person. Still, they insist that they want to be fair about the divorce and make things easy. Sure. Divorce is always easy. Especially when the couple has kids.
Nicole heads out to Los Angeles with their young son so she can film a pilot. Charlie stays behind in New York to work on his Broadway-bound play. When Nicole indicates that a custody schedule will have to take into account that she and Henry will be based in Los Angeles, Charlie is gobsmacked. He figured that Nicole would dash back to NYC as soon as she finished filming. So custody becomes the issue and things get ugly fast.
Watching Marriage Story, you will be that person; the person who has been friends with both people in a splitting-up couple. You will think you can stay friends with both people. Foolish! You have two choices: pick a friend and drift away from the other OR refuse to pick a friend and lose both. Notice that staying friends with both people is not an option. This is how it works…
Nicole has been feeling sooo secondary to Charlie. All he cares about is his theater company and his own artistic vision. Why shouldn’t she finally be able to spread her wings a little and take a promising part in LA? After all, her whole family is there. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but Charlie always veered away from opportunities in LA. And all of the money he makes goes right back into the theater company he directs. Well, sure… being a muse can only be satisfactory for so long. I mean, everyone has a right to find their voice.
Charlie has created this space where he and Nicole can express themselves artistically. And living in NYC is the best. Brooklyn, specifically. And in the future, anything is possible, work might bring them to say, Amsterdam or even LA. Right, New York is where you want to be if you’re an artist. And little Henry is all settled with friends and school.
Charlie is really busy, what with preparing his play for Broadway and flying to LA to see Henry; he doesn’t really have time to deal with the paperwork of divorce. Nicole on the other hand, wants things to be decided so that she and Henry can be more settled in LA. So she goes to see a lawyer, Nora (an excellent Laura Dern) who is part therapist, part legal body guard. So Charlie gets a lawyer too. His lawyer is Bert (masterfully played by Alan Alda) who advises Charlie to be realistic; Nicole has essentially established squatters’ rights and the courts will see the family as LA-based. Things unravel and heat up in equal measure. The lawyers may change, but the end-of-marriage has officially been martialized.
There is an argument scene that rivals the (biggest) argument scene between Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio in Revolutionary Road. Which is really saying something. Nicole and Charlie meet up at his temporary digs in LA to try and cool things down and decide some divorce details. At this point, pause the movie and get yourself a snack and a drink. (Snack during the energy-sapping fight — little candies or popcorn are best. After the fight, you will be parched and need to guzzle some refreshment.)
Watch the accusations fly! See Charlie angrily flail about! Listen to Nicole scream! Now Charlie hurls insults at Nicole! Nicole swears at Charlie! Wow… so much wreckage. ScarJo & Adam “Kylo Ren” Driver’s fiery, teary pas de deux is masterful. The Academy should be polishing Oscars for them as they re-watch this scene.
This is the point where you want to sit down with your friends and tell them you love them both and want them both to be happy. And you’re there…for both of them. Then you’ll wipe your tears and walk away. Because they will need their space to breathe and come to a resolution.
A few weeks later you run into Charlie at a work event. He’s pretty voluble until it’s just the two of you, then he just gives mono-syllabic answers and looks around the room when you try to engage him. Huh?
Coincidentally, the last time you texted Nicole to ask what Henry would like for his upcoming birthday, she weirdly texted back: Thanks! Life’s been crazy. Huh?
Then it dawns on you– Aha! We are not friends anymore.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Remember when Charlie and Nicole both characterized the other as competitive? Everybody else, you have a chance to get it right. So go watch Marriage Story and pick a side, dammit.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Excellent acting and screenplay. If you disdain stories featuring white, privileged coasters, skip it. Otherwise, it’s an engaging look at human nature. And a bracing look at matrimonial law.
Humor Highlight: Believe it or not, Noah Baumbach’s movie isn’t depressing, There is humor. The best sustained comedy is when an evaluator observes Charlie and Henry interacting on a “typical” evening at home.