"Marriage Story" Review

Title: Marriage Story
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson
Studio: Netflix
Genre(s): Drama
Rated: R (For language throughout and sexual references)

"Marriage Story" opens with a lovely melody playing the background while images of a happy couple play on the screen.  A man begins narrating all of the things he loves about his wife.  From the big things to the little things.  He even finds joy in some of the oddities of her personality.  Shortly after a woman takes over and narrates images where she shares what she loves about her husband.  Some of the things overlap or take polar opposites.  We listen lovingly at how beautiful it is, only for all of it to come crashing down immediately after wards, where the couple is sitting in a counselors office, the words not being spoken but simply written on a piece of paper.  They are about to get divorced and the therapist suggested they write down what they love about one another.  Neither is excited about the prospect of sharing, and the meeting ends a bust.

In less than ten minutes director Noah Baumbach managed to make audiences hearts soar with joy and then immediately breaks them.  It is an important thing to do because we are about to follow the lives of two people.  We are going to witness their marriage dissolve right before our eyes.  What's more, we need to like them both and not take sides.  We need to be able to want them to work things out and maybe turn things around if possible.  Baumbach masterfully pulls all of this off and does so in such a short amount of time, I knew that this would be a special movie despite being a familiar one.  For we have gotten many movies about love that falls apart.  Heck, Baumbach has tackled the subject of divorce before in one of his earlier films "The Squid and the Whale," which is still one of the most powerful films I've seen about the effects divorce has on the family.

However that film - while encompassing the family as a whole - was mostly about how the kids were affected by their parents decision to separate.  In "Marriage Story" the focus is squarely on how the separation is affecting the people going through it themselves.  They do have a son that they are having disagreements on living arrangements, but they both love him, and neither really want to use him as a pawn in a power struggle (and for his part, he seems a little oblivious to the true severity of the situation).  For that matter, when they must meet with lawyers and hash out details, the camera wisely lingers on their faces, putting the focus squarely on the subjects at hand.  The point of these scenes is not to see one lawyer outwit the other.  It is about seeing Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) struggling with their conflicted feelings about how ugly the process has gotten.

The screenplay is wise not to paint either one of these people as the villain, but rather as people who made mistakes and may have had different expectations from one another.  Nicole was once an aspiring Hollywood actress who fell in love with Charlie and moved to New York to be with him.  He came from a bad family with dreams of being a Broadway director, a goal he eventually achieves.  Even during the separation process, the two celebrate each others successes.  What seems to fall apart is communication.  She wants to have a life of her own, and feels that he is selfishly making her life all about him.  He seems confused at what the problem is.  After all, he casts her as the lead in his plays, and she has developed a name for herself thanks to him.  She longs for the sunny streets of LA while he is happy to call himself a New Yorker.  What is most frustrating to witness is how easily the separation most likely is for them.

There are many little moments that show the two love one another very much and very deeply.  Even after the most intense screaming match I've seen on film in years, the two break down in each others arms, wondering what brought them to the point where they are so cruel to one another.  I found myself wondering that.  I have witnessed many couples divorce over the years.  Separation seemed more common the older I got.  In most situations I would watch as a kid, confused as to why this was happening at all when it was clear they still loved one another.  I get that same sense here, but with less confusion now that I am older and a little wiser.  My parents raised me to know that marriage was hard work.  There would be times there would be disagreements and you would need to compromise.  When I watched "Marriage Story" all I could see was the compromise that weren't being made and the little things not being said.

This is a couple very much in love.  They just...sort of forgot how to show that love.  I admit it was interesting watching this with my wife of only a month and a half, but when the film was done with hugged and had a long discussion on the way home about ways we could better communicate with one another.  I saw the film at the historic Vista Theater in 35mm with a nearly sold out audience.  The experience was almost spiritual as the entire room was united in the universal truth and heartache that was being projected onto the screen.  Most will not be able to have this experience as the films distributor, Netflix, will be dumping it onto streaming services, thus robbing millions of the chance to experience this with fellow human beings.  While I thank them for financing such an emotionally powerful film, I think it is shameful to rob the audience of such an experience.

"Marriage Story" is one of the best films of the year.  It is one of the best films about relationships I have seen.  It has powerful lead performances by Driver and Johansson, along with great supporting turns from Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Julie Hagerty.  Movies like these are why I love going to the movies, and for a studio to rob others of having that very opportunity is disgraceful.  If you have the chance, see it in theaters.  If not, turn down the lights, silence your cell phones, and gather a group together at the house of the friend you know that has the biggest TV in town.

Parents, there is strong language, some sexual excounters at a party, and many tense verbal arguments.  There is also a scene where a character (accidently) cuts his arm, and so there is a lot of blood there.  No nudity from what I can tell.  Recommended for ages 17 and up.