Noah Baumbach’s second Netflix endeavor—a divorce drama titled Marriage Story—is a solid picture. It immediately makes a solid place in the ranks of classic dysfunctional marriage films—joining the lots of Kramer vs. Kramer, Blue Valentine, Revolutionary Road, and others, including Baumbach’s The Squid and The Whale. It offers a witty yet dramatic look at a deteriorating marriage and the complicated process of divorce, which only gets more hurtful as time goes by.
The story revolves around the marriage of Charlie (Adam Driver collaborating with the director for the third time) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson bringing back the charm she emanated in her Woody Allen period). The opening voice-over is a masterstroke—introducing us to the world of Charlie and Nicole from the perspective of each other. It’s deeply moving and romantic, but misleading at the same time. What unravels after is a tour de ego which keeps the couple drifting apart from each other even when there’s a son between them. Marriage Story delves into the depth of a divorce process, which only gets murkier and more perplexed as time goes by. While hearts start to forgive, the legal process throws different punches at different times.
Partially based on the director’s divorce with Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful 8), Marriage Story appears deeply, if not overly, personal. While the character’s occupation comes from Adam Driver’s input during the writing process, Baumbach models the plot from his divorce process which lasted for three years before being officially finalized in 2013. Even the writer-director roots on-screen conflicts in irreconcilable differences, which were cited as the reason for the real-life divorce. The bias is observable; but, so are the sense of atonement and self-reflection. And that only makes the whole conflict more intriguing.
I notice one element which makes the whole depicted dysfunctional marriage more ironic. Baumbach is an out-and-out New Yorker director with a portfolio of bittersweet New York stories. It’s portrayed in Marriage Story through a persona of a playwright, Charlie, to whom New York is his ego. Out of the city isn’t an option for him, even when it means a new life for Nicole, an aspiring actress, looking for a way out through Hollywood. Most of the time, Baumbach shows us the in-depth perspective of Charlie’s ego and only some glimpse of Nicole’s. It’s understandable since he seems to use this medium to express his regret over the time-and-energy-consuming divorce. Through some scenes, Baumbach delivers his atonement. Some reflective thought is highly relatable, like in the notion that most divorced couples fight for the time or custody that they never actually use well.
Driver is excellent. He owns the ego and irony then shoves them onto the screen. There are at least two powerful scenes showcasing Driver’s showmanship. On the verbal fight scene between him and Johansson, every anger that he shouts to Johansson is honest but hurtful; even when he realizes things that have flooded out of his mouth, he cannot take the consequences of how hurtful they were. On another scene, Driver’s rendition of Being Alive gives the ambiguity of either relief or devastated completely. Johansson, on the other hand, is more restrained. The reason might be Baumbach’s exploration of her character, which was not as personal as in Driver’s character. And yet, the chemistry between the two is undoubtedly powerful, if not too poignant.
For what it’s worth, Marriage Story belongs to the director’s finest filmography along with The Squid and The Whale as well as Frances Ha. It’s honest and personal; and, at the same time, it’s painful.