Noah Baumbach has been on a roll recently – coming out with really insightful and interesting comedy-dramas in the form of While We’re Young (2014), The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), and now possible Oscar contender, Marriage Story. The film, influenced by various films, such as multiple Oscar winner, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), takes a detailed and insightful look at marriage and divorce.
The film stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as the young couple, Charlie and Nicole Barber, who have a 8-year-old child, Henry together. Charlie is a theatre director living in New York City, making strange avant-garde plays, while Nicole is a former teen actress who often stars in Charlie’s plays. As Nicole moves to Los Angeles to star in a new television pilot, the divorce proceedings start to begin. As Charlie is torn between his child in Los Angeles and his work in New York City, proceedings between the couple begin to turn ugly.
The film, which has had a early release in various film festivals over the past 3 months, has been making waves, with particular acclaim for it’s two lead performances. Driver and Johansson have both been stated to get a lot of awards love, with some staying they will be competition for original favourites, Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively (although, it does seem like the controversy about Joker will more hurt Phoenix’s chances more).
Firstly, Driver’s performance is really terrific. The actor – who has also starred in the summer’s disappointing zombie flick, The Dead Don’t Die; the recent Amazon Prime original, The Report and will star in the forthcoming Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker later this month – is really having his “moment” right now. As one of the most hardest working man in show-business, he has risen up acting in various indie films with some fantastic directors (including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers). He seems to be in the rank of select group of actors like Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Gosling that can seem to mix both small, independent movies with big-budget blockbusters. This, however, might be his best work. He follows Dustin Hoffman’s template in Kramer vs. Kramer by being small and subtle whilst remaining very powerful and impactful.
Johansson is also very good. Like Driver, she also seems to be having a “moment” right now, including this, her acclaimed work in Taika Watiti’s film, Jojo Rabbit (which has yet to come out in the UK), and her small, but pivotal role in Avengers: Endgame earlier in the year. Here, she makes a return to the subtle, engaging lead performances not particularly seen since her work in Lost in Translation over 15 years ago. Her work in the early parts of the film is particularly heart-breaking, particularly a long monologue about how her life has not turned out the way she hoped.
Along with the two fantastic lead performances, the supporting cast are also terrific. Laura Dern is on good form (building on her recent great work on the television series, Big Little Lies and the news she is returning to the Jurassic Park series) as Nicole’s whip-smart, sharp-tongued lawyer. There are some good cameos from various character actors, including Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty.
Aside from the performances, the film has some terrific moments and scenes that very much stick out. The opening, in which Charlie and Nicole discuss what they love about the other was so lovely and self-contained that it could of been released a gorgeous short film. Much like, a lot of Baumbach’s work, the film balances a lot of different genres, from wacky, almost-slapstick comedy to heart-breaking drama, and at some points, bizarrely tips into a musical.
One of best scenes include when Nicole’s sister, Cassie (Wever) is convinced by Nicole to serve Charlie the divorce papers, and because of Cassie’s nerves, the end result is a wacky and hilarious scene. In another scene, Charlie has a visit from a caretaker, which is quite awkward and unsuccessful that culminates on Charlie accidentally cutting himself and passing out on the floor (I’m serious). The scene is so weird and bizarre (and surprisingly gory) that it actually ends up being rather brilliant.
Along with the strange, weird and wacky, the film also has a lot of emotional moments – especially a lengthy segment where Driver sings the entirety of Sondheim’s “Being Alive”, which while being beautifully sang, is very emotional and sweet. Another beautiful scene is when Driver reads out the letter Nicole wrote about him aloud to his son (who is struggling to learn how to read), which had me tearing up. The letters in the opening segment also make their way into the rest of the film that is very smartly written and clever.
These are fantastic moments, but sometimes, that is all the film feels like – a variety of scenes and moments. If I have a complaint about the film, it could have a better, tighter and more polished narrative. I hate to say it, but I think that possibly the performances are better than the overall film. That being said, the overall film is still a beautiful and emotional watch, which are worth watching for it’s fantastic lead performances.