Marriage Story should be called Dissection of a Divorce because it’s actually about the long, drawn-out process of a marriage’s end. It’s well-crafted, well-acted, and terribly sad.
Marriage Story is a tragedy—there are no bones about it. It’s raw, vicious, heartbreaking, and a sad, sad commentary on the state of marriage today. There seems no hope in the institution, in love, in happiness with another. Noah Baumbach’s newest film is not about marriage, but the destruction of one. It tells the tale of the implosion of a marriage and the struggle to pick up the pieces of two lives intertwined around their child while using the child as an excuse for attempting to destroy what’s left of one another’s lives.
Charlie and Nicole Barber (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johnsson) are getting a divorce. He’s a genius (literally, there’s an award to prove it) stage director, and she’s an acclaimed actress. They have a son. She’s moving to LA to pursue a TV career. He’s staying in New York to direct his avant-garde plays. She has her passions. He has his. They grew apart. Things were supposed to be civil. Until they weren’t. Cue the lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda), and let the screaming and fighting begin.
I believe that Marriage Story has a great deal to say about marriage itself. But it’s much more interested in explicating the depths to which people will sink in the midst of a divorce. Despite the fact that it’s called Marriage Story and is actually about divorce, that’s really the point, right? Statistically, marriages head in that direction – it seems all but inevitable. At no point do our characters attempt reconciliation. It’s a done deal. We don’t see the build-up to the separation. It’s already decided when we meet our antagonists. Marriage is almost supposed to end this way these days, and that’s profoundly sad. We’re supposed to do the whole thing and hopefully make peace with our new normal, hopefully achieving a balance apart that we never could together. Structurally, this film asserts this solution, and that works effectively, yet it’s still an intense process to get there, and I’m still left hollowed out by that journey.
Scarlett Johansson is flawless, giving a performance we haven’t seen from her in a long time. She’s wounded, struggling to find her voice in a marriage between two strong people. But she’s caring, needing to find some sort of solace in the painful place to which her relationship has gone. She runs the gamut of emotions in multiple scenes, between angry, passive-aggressive, tearful, comforting, conflicted. She’s so excellent here and is a lock for an Oscar nomination.
Similarly, Adam Driver is at turns calm, rational, pent-up, broken, building upon and upping his game from performances we’ve seen of late. He denies that she lost her voice in the marriage, that both went forward with their lives willingly, that she simply decided to fall out of love with him. He’s wounded again and again throughout the film, and we sympathize.
Yet we sympathize with both of them, and we can (and must) stand back and look critically at both of them.
Their supporting cast is also excellent. As the divorce lawyers, Laura Dern and Alan Alda play comic relief to the emotionally wrung-out Johansson and Driver. Dern is exceptional in her role, playing the sympathetic warrior who will fight for her client all while serving her tea and biscotti and giving her a hug while barefoot on her office couch. She’s so good. Alda plays his role a bit more subtly, though his grandfatherly role still earns quite a few good laughs.
What’s most tragic is the resigned nature everyone takes when faced with the prospect of divorce. It’s a funny, funny movie at times, the absurdity of many proceedings juxtaposed with the devastation they leave in their wake. And yet it moved many in my audience to tears at times. This is an excellent film (with editing issues) that will surely make a solid showing come awards season.
Tyler is a teacher, librarian and the Co-host of The Geek Card Check Podcast. He has been a Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut since 2018.