Rating: 4 out of 5
“Breaking up is hard to do”, once sang Alton Ellis. Noah Baumbach’s latest depiction of a crumbling marriage, Marriage Story, is similarly autobiographical to his earlier chronicle of divorce, The Squid and The Whale, however, this is a much more mature and fully-realized work. Written and filmed in the wake of Baumbach’s own uncoupling from Jennifer Jason-Leigh, this film is a heart-wrenchingly personal examination of a disintegrating union. The film refuses to choose sides or champion one parent, the pain of these individuals is laid bare in all its profundity and pettiness. This is an achingly emotional work from a filmmaker in complete spiritual harmony with both his performers and the language of his camera.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are no strangers to powerful performances, however, Marriage Story, represents new heights for them both in terms of palpable chemistry. They have enacted no shortage of romantic roles in their careers, yet, Marriage Story’s unflinchingly honest portrayal of a relationship in decline allows them to be flexible within their range. These are diverse, colorful and raw performances, no emotion is out of place, indecipherable or confused, the duo are constantly locked into the rhythm of the narrative. The supporting cast, namely, Ray Liotta, Laura Dern and Alan Alda add both tension and levity to the story; as the effective advocates and beneficiaries of divorce they display the industry of divorce as an absurd game convoluted by money, emotions, resentment, tradition and personal biases.
The characters at the center of the story progress equally as those on the periphery, the family members of Johansson’s, cast and crew of Driver’s theater troupe, and the lawyers themselves, all have tangible arcs, no matter how briefly they appear on screen. Much like Lady Bird or Boyhood, the film employs a romantic realism to convey the weight of every narrative thread, no matter how small a detail, everything is lovely, painful or worthy of our laughter. The direction has a natural poeticism reminiscent of those aforementioned films, every character is treated equally, the camera is motivated by efficiency, clarity and truth, no part too ugly or too beautiful to obscure.
There are a surprising amount of laughs in this film, Baumbach has always had a penchant for the bittersweet, in Marriage Story, he reaches new pinnacles of both. For every witty observation on the nature of divorce from Dern or Alda behind it rests legitimate, unsettled pain. Much like other films from this year: The Lighthouse, Midsommar, The Farewell, and Parasite, this film wants us to smile, in spite of the subject matter. Unlike other films about divorce, Marriage Story, asks difficult questions and does not deny us answers, insisting instead that the answers we are looking for are going to require more effort and struggle from us than we expected to give but are perhaps all the more beautiful and worth asking as a result.
Marriage Story is not an entertaining film, however, despite the heavy material, it is thoroughly watchable and fabulously filmed. This is one of the best-acted films of the year, the ensemble coalesces into such a unified whole, it’s a testament to the remarkable talents of Driver and Johansson that they are never forced into the background by their peers while never overshadowing the performances surrounding them, perhaps it’s the presence they’ve developed playing Sith Lords and Super-Spies but they shine as confident, staggeringly committed performers. This is Baumbach’s most accomplished and assured film to date, the youthful anxieties of Frances Ha and paralyzing middle-age dread of Greenberg and While We’re Young have evolved into a weary, lovelorn and exhaustive compulsion towards people. The result is a film that, refreshingly, beyond respecting it’s characters, cherishes them in all their messy, lived-in glory.