Review – Marriage Story (2019)

by Armando Vanegas

After watching this movie, I’ve decided to retire from being a fan of movies because Noah Baumbach’s latest movie Marriage Story  finally did what I’ve wanted from movies and nothing else will compare. The Squid and the Whale was one of the movies that made me a fan of movies because it made me realize you can talk about real things like marital issues onscreen and it can impact the audience talking about those things. It doesn’t have to make you laugh, be scared, or excite you. It can also stick with you on a more personal level. Writer/director Noah Baumbach had that special touch, even back then. I think since Squid, I’ve wanted Baumbach to keep going into that well. Perhaps, I have personal things that made me want this. It also was helpful to learn that he was a child of divorce and that it was a semi-autobiographical look at his parents’ marriage. How he touched on divorce in Squid made me feel like I was seen. Marriage Story didn’t exactly fulfill those satisfactions if only because I didn’t need that itch scratched anymore. I’m young and I just want to enjoy whatever’s out there. When I saw Squid, I wanted more time in that world with these characters because it was so engrossing to me. Logically, there’s no way for this to continue because it felt complete enough even though the ending could be stronger. The movie gods have answered as this is essentially a spiritual sequel to The Squid and the Whale and it has that incredibly written Baumbach dialogue to listen to for 2 hours. It seems that he’s gotten his takes on how divorce sucks out of his system and I did as well.  As far as I can tell, movies are now dead and I will leave this movie life and become a cobbler. But before I do, I’ll talk about Marriage Story. Semi-based on Baumbach’s previous relationship, the movie deals with a theater couple who decide to go through with a divorce. As they realize, this process is extremely difficult and rough as they deal with ruthless lawyers and surprise reveals about each other. If The Squid and the Whale was the breakthrough EP, then Marriage Story is the mic drop and the surefire hit that defines  Baumbach as one of the great American directors of his time.

In the beginning, this had the feeling of a typical Baumbach movie and I wasn’t wrong. Adam Driver is a young theater director named Charlie attempting to work on a new play. I was like “yet another white creative in New York going through first world problems? You’re really pushing it, Noah”, I thought to myself at the beginning. But it gets more intriguing when he gets a nasty surprise after his wife Nicole decides she wants a divorce. Once the divorce comes into the play, Driver starts to feel more and more emotionally drained with every new development in the proceedings. He’s forced to come to L.A. once he realizes that there are some legal reasons concerning where they got married in L.A. resulting in the whole ordeal being handled in the city.  Charlie ends up having to move between L.A. for the divorce and to New York for the new play he’s directing. The movie though mostly concerns the divorce and how the couple is dealing with it so it does help make the movie feel more relatable when it stays in that direction. Driver makes the character sympathetic and somewhat relatable as we witness his journey in this new city. He’s a father that has many flaws but it’s clear that he’s someone who’s trying. Charlie consistently trying to handle his new play is a big deal, but it’s not clear to him that he might need to make sacrifices. The fact that he’s being spread so thin gives me something to care about him. Not that he needed it because he’s naturally likable in the role. All the mistakes he made weren’t malicious. He just got too laidback, which results in the relationship feeling off. The moments where he gets to go off are interesting because it’s always entertaining to watch people break down on screen. He has small quiet moments that show that he’s trying to keep it all together and how he manages it is believable. As a theatre director, you have to have all these spinning plates so it’s plausible how he tries to keep all these things together.

There’s one moment where he has a home visit for the divorce to show he’s a capable father. It’s something that happens where things have so much opportunity to go downhill, and it gets crazy. It’s a dedication to Driver that he’s forced to keep it together even when things go haywire. It was so bad that I was so hoping that wasn’t going to be the ending. Charlie’s “fish out of water” experiences provide some great moments of comedy as it manages to examine the absurdities of the situation. One of which includes Ray Liotta as a very stern and abrasive divorce lawyer that Charlie meets with who’s willing to do all he can to make Nicole suffer. He has weird hilarious energy as he has this stiffness to the character that feels very un Ray Liotta-like but he ends up just being Ray Liotta. Alan Alda is another lawyer who attempts to help Charlie as he feels lost in the situation. He provides wisdom and jokes to ease the situation but Charlie worries that might not be enough. It was a nice change of pace from the usual divorce lawyers that we see in movies.

As Nicole, Scarlett Johansson has delivered an emotionally complex performance that’s filled with multiple layers. When we see things from her perspective, we understand where she’s coming from. She’s always felt underappreciated for most of their time together. She successfully gets it across that this new opportunity will give her some newfound freedom and control of her life. It made me think how even when things are seemingly normal, a person can feel compliant and passive even if it takes a while to realize it. They just do what the other person wants them to do and they just listen. There are a few moments where she has these long monologues about how she felt, one by herself and the other with Driver, where you feel for her. Some movies would make her the monster but she’s a caring mother as seen with a close relationship with her son. It’s relatively uncommon these days to see her as an actress do something so emotionally demanding. It feels like Baumbach pushed her to get to something raw and she committed to what was asked of her. Laura Dern is wonderful as Nicole’s lawyer. Yes, she’s essentially that lawyer that we see in all the movies, but the way she is outside of the proceedings gives a sense of humanity. It’s not like Liar Liar where everyone hates each other and the lawyers are all out for blood. Everyone like Dern knows how tough the process is and realizes that this is just the role they have to play. But, there are moments where we see that she’s not a bad person because of this, the aggressive attitude is something that just comes with the job.

If you’re like me, you’ve thought that for years that The Squid and the Whale was a brilliant tragicomedy about a divorce situation so real, it felt like someone put a camera in your room. Now, I don’t know if it’s as relatable as I once believed because the characters are unlikeable and rather pretentious. Still, I still love it as it’s a well-crafted movie because there are moments that feel all too real even if parts of it feels too insular. It’s also extremely sad throughout its runtime. The same can be said about Marriage Story. It’s not a pleasant experience but it’s an entertaining experience. Seeing a relationship disintegrate is a fascinating thing to me. I always feel like a voyeur watching a car accident and I can’t look away. I can’t say I feel as giddy as I used to because I’d like to believe I’m more mature. It’s just fascinating to see how much these people are willing to express in so many ways how much they can’t stand each other anymore. There’s something in its most honest moments that feels heartbreaking to see. There’s a fight scene near the end that’s something to behold when things reach a certain peak in the scene.

Overall, this is a weird thing to watch morally because both sides have their points and it’s sad that things can’t be fixed like new because things don’t work like that. I haven’t even had my first girlfriend yet, so a lot of it is just strange and weird to me. Yet, the beauty of movies is that even when we can’t see ourselves in others, we can find small windows of universality where we least expect it. As we watch these characters, we can recognize that this is a tough situation because the movie does a great job laying out this dead marriage like an autopsy on HBO’s America Undercover. Neither character hates each other, they just want different things. There are moments of them respecting each other and wanting to stay friends even if the marriage isn’t working out. The movie does at least have moments of empathy with the characters to make things not too depressing for people. There’s also enough comedy in there to ease the tension of some awkward scenes. Baumbach has gotten better with being more playful with his actors and leaning into his screwball comedy tendencies when he gets a chance. The theatre company stuff is pretty entertaining as the actors in Charlie’s play manage to shine like Wallace Shawn as an actor talking dirty, which was a sight to see. Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty also have hysterical appearances as Nicole’s sister and mother, respectively. Yet the comedy is only a brief diversion into what is a very heavy situation for many. Marriage Story is a beautifully told story about the complexities of divorce that is at once touching and heartbreaking.

I am giving Marriage Story a 5 out of 5 Hairpieces!



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