Noah Baumbach returns to the subject of divorce after first exploring the premise in The Squid and the Whale (2005), albeit from a different perspective both within the film and himself as a writer. His new offering centres around a couple who are on the road to divorce, Charlie and Nicole, featuring two virtuoso performances by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson who combine to drive home the realism of nearly every scene.
This unfortunate yet all-too-common process is closely examined in all its gritty detail, but preventing the film from being an exercise in depression is a healthy dose of Baumbach’s unique style of humour, not to mention a slightly eccentric family that again feels very Baumbach-like. He has always been very adept at creating memorable characters and this is no different. His characters usually have flaws or oddities that aid in his work feeling human; oddly though, the principle exception is couples’ son, Henry.
Despite being caught in the middle of his parents separation, Henry isn’t a major part of the film either. It feels intentional, a realistic look at how children often take a backseat when their parents’ issues consume all else.
Considering the subject explored, this appropriately is a film of contrasts: the realisation of how different Charlie and Nicole are, heated arguments that can suddenly morph into laughter (or tears). The manner in which their divorce proceeds being the opposite of what they initially agreed on. Among others, there is the obvious difference between the couples’ aspirations: Charlie wants to continue directing plays in New York, while Nicole wants to pursue an acting career in California, a career she had already started until she put it on hold to be with and perform in Charlie’s productions.
It feels apt then that the very first moments are at odds with all that is to follow: in tones of voice that have subtle touches of affection, we hear both Charlie and Nicole read a list of everything they like about each other. It is a touching introduction as both have many positive things to say.
The way this introduction is constructed adds to the instant connection we feel to the couple: the emotion conveyed as both lists are read is heightened by homely scenes that rhythmically mirror what is being said. The small details of each letter highlight probably highlight the reasons that originally brought the two together, flaws included.
However, the first scene directly after Nicole’s list about Charlie is heartbreaking, as what they read was simply an exercise that a marriage counsellor of sorts asked them to complete. The fact they were asked to write the list rather than their words being shared of their own volition shatters the illusion of attachment that had been created, and in its place becomes the very opposite.
The intimate understanding of family dynamics and strained relationships is obvious, the searing realism of their relationship unravelling is almost disturbing, especially if, like myself, you are a child of divorce. If we are honest though, this understanding of family-driven roller-coasters has been Baumbach’s forte for years, a talent that has only improved.
Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Julia Greer as Nicole’s mother (who Charlie amusingly seems to be best friends with) all excel in bringing their characters to life and every member of the cast share perfect chemistry. Johansson is at her best since 2013’s Under The Skin after a few lack-lustre years within Marvel’s Universe.
Adam Driver however has been the definition of consistent for years now, starring in other vastly different roles for directors such as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Terry Gilliam and Jim Jarmusch over the last three years, as well as Baumbach’s previous film. And I hear he is also the best part of the Star Wars reboot too! The future is very bright for this young actor.
Despite the varied and clever dry humour, best realised during numerous situations and conversations that border on the absurd, the film as if it could have the subtitle: “Please, never get married”. And who knows, perhaps that is precisely how Baumbach feels at this moment after recently experiencing a divorce himself.
He has said that this is not autobiographical, but has acknowledged how personal this film is to him; a distinct difference, and this personal connection has certainly worked in his favour, as Marriage Story is one of the best dramas of the year, and yet another winner for Netflix who have ended the year on a very strong note.
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