Review by LL Soares

Divorce is a bitch.

If previous movies about the subject (or horror stories from divorced friends and relatives) didn’t make this abundantly clear, Noah Baumbach (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, 2005, FRANCES HA, 2012) has given us a film that confirms it yet again named MARRIAGE STORY (2019). And while it may not bring much in the way of new revelations to the table, it’s all in how he presents it.

First off, the two leads in this family drama, Adam Driver (STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, 2015, and PATERSON, 2016) and Scarlett Johansson (LOST IN TRANSLATION, 2003, UNDER THE SKIN, 2013, and the Black Widow in the AVENGERS movies and her upcoming solo adventure), might as well be conducting a master class in acting. They’re both exceptionally good here, as two people whose relationship has just reached its expiration date.

He’s Charlie Barber, a theater director whose on the verge of helming his first big Broadway play after years of toiling in the trenches. She’s Nicole, his wife and muse, and the star of many of his plays. He brought her legitimacy as an actress, giving her meaty, acclaimed roles after her claim to fame – a Hollywood movie about teens where she took her shirt off. She could have ended up as a joke, but meeting Charlie gives her a lifeline to be truly creative. But it’s not like she has nothing to offer. Her star power has brought attention of Charlie his plays and certainly helped him to reach the level of success he’s at. The thing is, she’s not satisfied and her desire to go back to Hollywood and restart her movie career has been thwarted by Charlie, who considers the theater legitimate acting and who bristles at the thought of going to sunny L.A.

One day, she just decides enough is enough. She’s put her career goals on hold for too long. When she gets a chance to star in a television pilot, so heads out to Los Angeles, where she’s from – she stays with her mom, Sandra (Julie Hagerty, AIRPLANE!, 1980) and her sister, Cassie (Meritt Wever, NURSE JACKIE, 2009-2015, and CHARLIE SAYS, 2018), who live there – with no intention of going back to the theater world of New York.

When Charlie comes to visit, with news that he just won a McArthur Genius Grant, he gets the news (thanks to papers Nicole pressures Cassie into serving) that Nicole wants a divorce. If this isn’t devastating enough, the things that tears them apart most is their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), and how this will affect him.

The most troubling transformation here is how Charlie and Nicole, who are basically both good people, are twisted in knots due to their divorce lawyers. At first, they want to keep it all amicable and fair, convinced they don’t really need lawyers. But the sting an affair Charlie had and growing paranoia makes Nicole seek out representation by Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern, BLUE VELVET, 1986, JURASSIC PARK, 1993, and TWIN PEAKS, 2017), who is known for being ruthless in the courtroom. Charlie tries to take the high road by going with Bert Spitz (Alan Alda, M*A*S*H, 1972-1983, and currently on the Showtime series RAY DONOVAN), a lawyer that Nicole’s mother (who is still friendly with Charlie) recommends. Bert is honest, soft-spoken, and comes off as a really nice guy – which means that eventually paranoia and fear of losing his son will make Charlie fire him and instead go with someone who is just as much of a shark as Nora is, in this case Jay Marotta, played with intensity by Ray Liotta (GOODFELLAS, 1990, and REVOLVER, 2005).

It doesn’t take things long to get ugly. To show how devoted to his son Charlie is, he has to rent an apartment in Los Angeles, even though he lives in New York, and travel back and forth constantly, endangering the Broadway play he’s supposed to be directing. At one point, an evaluator from the court (Martha Kelly, BASKETS, 2016-2019) shows up at his apartment to interview Charlie and his son, and watch them interact, which make for some tension and squirming.

Despite their original good intentions, Charlie and Nicole become the people they wanted to be, as they fight for custody and separate lives. For the most part, the movie doesn’t demonize either of them. If there are any villains in the film, it’s the lawyers who make everything contentious, but who are doing exactly what they were paid to do.

Driver and Johansson are terrific here, and deserve all of the accolades they’ve been getting for the roles. The supporting players are also terrific, especially Laura Dern who seems to light up any room she walks into. And while he has less screen time, Liotta is just as charismatic.

The direction by Baumbach is spot-on. While he claims that the story is not based on his real life, it is no doubt inspired by his divorce to actress Jennifer Jason-Leigh. His screenplay really tries to be even-handed in a scenario where one parent might easily be favored (there might be a slight tilt toward making Charlie a bit more sympathetic), and the main focus is on how a bad situation affects good people. Baumbach is a talented director, and he does a terrific job here, with an exceptional cast.

I give MARRIAGE STORY, four knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives MARRIAGE STORY — 4 knives!


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