Marriage Story: A Review

Do not be confused by the title or presentation — this is a horror movie. If you have any reservations about marriage or a fear of vulnerability, Marriage Story is a brutal validation of your fears. It’s also a startlingly funny meditation on relationships.

Marriage Story finds emotion in the mundane. Inspired by director Noah Baumbach’s own divorce, the film follows Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) as they attempt to navigate their divorce without any casualties. 

Baumbach has said that Marriage Story isn’t about his past marriage to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. He says the movie is personal, not autobiographical, and there’s a difference. But the parallels between his actual relationship and the movie are hard to ignore. Nicole and Leigh have near-identical backgrounds. Charlie directs Nicole just as Baumbach and Leigh collaborated in several films together.

However, Baumbach’s claim becomes more convincing as the film plays out. It’s difficult to see why he would portray himself as the arrogant and oblivious Charlie, who never quite figures out what to say or what to do next — Nicole was in charge of logistics.

Marriage Story doesn’t pick sides. Although we watch Charlie manipulate Nicole, he is the emotional center of the film. It’s hard to dislike him. Driver manages to embody every good thing Nicole says about Charlie in the opening montage. 

Charlie and Nicole’s relationship dynamic is laid out to us in the opening scenes, then supported throughout the film. It’s great storytelling. Like Nicole says, “All the problems were there in the beginning.” 

Johansson masters her many monologues in the film. Driver’s performance is a highlight, but supporting actors Laura Dern and Ray Liotta steal the spotlight. As high-class lawyers Nora Fanshaw and Jay Marotta, their office scenes offer levity and their court scene is the most anxiety-inducing point of the film. 

Baumbach’s directing highlights how isolated Nicole and Charlie feel. They are often the focal point of an otherwise empty frame. When on a phone call in New York, Charlie gets lost in a sea of New Yorkers, each dealing with their own mild inconvenience or life-shattering change. In the lead up to the famous scene where Johansson and Driver have it out, the camera cuts to a wide shot, demonstrating the literal distance between the two.

On that note, watching Charlie gripe about how Nicole should be grateful that he didn’t cheat on her more is blood-boiling. Driver delivers one of the funniest lines of the year: “You shouldn’t be upset that I f-ked her, you should be upset that I had a laugh with her.” My only problem with the film is that Driver and Johansson have no on-screen chemistry to convince us that their marriage was ever worth fighting for.

Image from IMDB

Marriage Story is full of quotable lines and every scene is a memorable scene. No moment is wasted. It’s a film that’s enhanced by repeat viewings. On the second viewing, you’ll think maybe Nicole didn’t see all of the top lawyers in L.A. to spite Charlie, but because her sister, played by the scene-stealing Merritt Wever, dragged her to the appointments. You’ll realize just how perfectly the two musical numbers embody the characters. You’ll appreciate Charlie’s Halloween costumes, which represent his feelings in relation to his family. The humanness of the characters is Marriage Story’s greatest strength. For all the turmoil in-between, the film is bookended by loving actions.

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