With ‘Marriage Story‘, Noah Baumbach makes a spiritual parallel to ‘The Squid and the Whale’ that also gives Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver their best roles to date in the NYFF Centerpiece.
Walking into a Noah Baumbach movie, there are usually a handful of things to guarantee. Great performances, amazing writing, tonal whiplash, closely shot faces… hallmarks of the Baumbach film. Marriage Story is another amazing example of his talents, and he brings together another cast of all-stars with a brilliantly made drama about the end of love and what children mean to a parent.
Marriage Story opens with Charlie (Adam Driver) narrating a sequence about what he loves for Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), something that feels like a more sentimental version of that old When Harry Met Sally bit. Then Nicole reads her own things she loves about Charlie. Leitmotifs play beneath all of this, the lovely piano of Randy Newman at work. And then we see that this is a mediation session between Nicole and Charlie. This is not simply a flashback or narration, but the last attempt at civility. The humor and the heart go just far enough to make that first punch land. Hard.
This is what the rest of the film succeeds at. There are moments of humor and moments of tenderness, satires of the theater scene and of TV pilot seasons. And when the divorce proceedings begin there is every joke in the book about lawyers that you could (tastefully) get away with. There are even scenes that recall The Squid and the Whale and Mistress America when it comes to divorce and marriage, both movies that handle divorce from the perspective of different ages and times. But by focusing on the younger side of children and parents, it feels… fresh. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver bring a raw energy to this film, and they force the movie’s true pain to the surface.
I would probably say that both Driver and Johansson give their best performances to date in this film. Johansson’s appearance bringing together her broken-heartedness from Lost in Translation together with her loveless wanderer of Her. Adam Driver, meanwhile, continues to be one of the best actors of the generation. Driver acts with brutal honesty and intensity, a self-made man who allows success to his head. A few scenes in the movie involve the two fighting and flirting and figuring out how to interact in the future after the end of their love affair. And naturally, every scene is powerful in individual ways. Johanson surprises the most, going beyond what I could have believed her possibilities. Driver’s own best moment comes in a knock-down-drag-out scene that broke me towards the film’s end.
Two of the generations best actors, they have a power that is unbridled. And they have some amazing scene partners as well, with Laura Dern bringing “Renata Klein-energy” to the big screen, and both Ray Liotta and Alan Alda giving late-in-career masterworks. Also worth noting are Merritt Weaver and Julie Hagerty as the sister and mother of Johansson’s character, a family of LA musicians and actors who never had Nicole’s level of success. And then there is Wallace Shawn (amongst a cavalcade of other theater actors) giving a blisteringly funny performance as an entitled actor in Charlie’s company.
We’re shown early on that both Charlie and Nicole are talented, and that they are great parents to their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). We learn about Nicole’s dead gay father, and about Charlie’s abusive and alcoholic parents. There’s how Charlie adopted New York as his home, and how Nicole never really left Los Angeles. Nicole’s sordid past and Charlie’s possible infidelity come into play. And eventually, every character detail becomes an attack, a way to fight for custody and love. Because that is what divorce does. It makes enemies of lovers and custody battles into wars.
As Marriage Story plays out, you see how Charlie and Nicole exist in the lives of one another. What they do and don’t see in one another. How they’ve changed. How they haven’t. And on and on and on. Throughout it all, your eye never leaves Driver and Johansson as they reach the end of a life cycle. So it goes.
Marriage Story premiered at the New York Film Festival. It stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. It will be in theaters and on Netflix this November.