Film review of Marriage Story

(This film review of “Marriage Story” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 November 2019)

Directed and written by Noam Baumbach; starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and Julie Hagerty

Noah Baumbach writes and directs character-driven dramatic films, the type that helped to change American movie-making in the late 1960s and 1970s. Baumbach carries the tradition of those break-through directors (think Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet), and has been called the “spiritual heir” to Woody Allen, “joking in earnest about the big stuff.”

Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) famously said that Baumbach reminded him “of why I got into movies in the first place. It was for revenge.” Some of Baumbach’s best work has been autobiographical, such as “The Squid and the Whale”. Now add Baumbach’s latest, “Marriage Story”, which has just opened in Australian cinemas, and will screen via Netflix from mid-December.

Netflix put “Marriage Story” in cinemas in November to make it eligible for the Oscars (it’s now on Netflix). And Oscar-worthy it is, being tipped for best film, script, director, actor and actress nominations. It’s that good.

It’s also not easy to watch. For “Marriage Story” is not boy-meets-girl cute and live happily-ever-after; rather the opposite. The story begins in New York City where experimental theatre director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is about to split up from his actress wife Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson), who is heading to Los Angeles – where she grew up and her extended family lives – to star in a pilot TV show. The problem is, they have an eight year old adorable son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), over whom they will fight for most of the film – yes, it’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” (Streep vs. Hoffman) 40 years on. With Henry moving to LA with Nicole (“lots of space”, characters keep saying), Charlie must travel there to be with him, providing an undercurrent of New York/Los Angeles and theatre/television tension.

“Marriage Story” starts pleasantly and poetically enough, with voice-over monologues by Charlie and Nicole, each listing the things they love about each other. It’s one of the most affecting openings to a relationship film I have seen in a long time. It’s also a misdirection to the viewer, as the next scene – the two of them with a marriage counsellor mediator – makes clear. Nicole is driving their separation, and it’s likely that many men and women will react differently both to this scene and to the film.

In the lead roles, Driver and Johansson deliver extraordinary performances, enhanced by some of the sharpest – and intentionally hilarious – minor characters, all of whom “own” the screen when present. Three divorce lawyers – Laura Dern as Nicole’s lawyer, and Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as Charlie’s lawyers – appear in tightly scripted and neatly paced scenes you can easily imagine pored over by film students in years to come. Julie Hagerty plays Johansson’s mother, exhibiting the comedy skills she developed in her “Airplane!” (1980) debut role. Screen aficionados will also note the presence of Wallace Shawn, one of the world’s top Jewish character actors (“The Princess Bride”, “Clueless”), as one of Charlie’s New York theatre troupe.

Baumbach remains one of film’s best writers of contemporary “drama with a comedy edge”, with lines such as this one, delivered by Liotta’s character: “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best. Divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.” Pretty much captures it.

The film does not emphasise its Jewish roots, but they are significant: “Marriage Story” is based on the dissolution of the marriage of Baumbach (who is Jewish) to Jennifer Jason Leigh (also Jewish), played by Johansson (also Jewish). The Adam Driver character’s family background has more to do with Driver’s own family story (mid-west dysfunctional) than Baumbach’s (New York Jewish intellectual), but it’s easy to see how Driver’s character stands in for Baumbach’s own. The result is a complex, brave, affecting, profound, unsettling and often very funny drama, my pick for one of the best of the year.

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