‘Marriage Story’ effectively captures the angst and agony of divorce

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 12/6/19

“Marriage Story” isn’t about the throes of nuptial bliss, but rather the messiness of matrimonial disunion. The film opens with a couple who’s married in name only, dancing around a …

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‘Marriage Story’ effectively captures the angst and agony of divorce

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Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Azhy Robertson star in 'Marriage Story.'
Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Azhy Robertson star in 'Marriage Story.'
Photo courtesy of Netflix
Posted
Updated:

“Marriage Story” isn’t about the throes of nuptial bliss, but rather the messiness of matrimonial disunion. The film opens with a couple who’s married in name only, dancing around a dissolution that seems inevitable but not yet acknowledged. It’s also a savvy overview of a divorce industrial complex designed to achieve the best possible outcome for individual parties through the most corrosive, destructive means.

Director Noah Baumbach consulted with divorced friends as well as various players in the legal system while doing research for the film. But it’s quite obvious that “Marriage Story” is virtually a roman à clef, drawn heavily from Baumbach’s divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh seven years ago. Like Baumbach, Charlie Barber (played by Adam Driver) is a noteworthy New York-based writer-director who met his movie actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), while she was doing theater on Broadway. As in Baumbach and Leigh’s breakup, Nicole returns to Los Angeles to initiate divorce and custody proceedings over the couple’s lone son.

Baumbach’s familiarity with the subject matter filters through his screenplay, a compassionate, layered portrait in which every party carries blame but no one person is the sole transgressor. Yes, Charlie carried on a dalliance with one of his production assistants, but that’s almost the least of his misdeeds. Charlie is preoccupied with his theater career and almost oblivious to the sacrifices Nicole made to her acting career to remain in New York with Charlie and their son, Henry.

When Charlie’s inaction extends to any efforts to amicably resolve their acrimony without lawyers, Nicole goes to live with her family in LA and hires a family attorney, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). After Nicole serves divorce papers on Charlie when he visits California, he engages two attorneys, one a fast-talking hotshot named Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) who treats family court like a battleground, and the other an older divorcee named Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) who believes the most satisfactory outcomes come from avoiding the courtroom.

The deck is decidedly stacked against Charlie, mainly by his own doing. Beyond his infidelity, his emotional distance from both Nicole and Henry is apparent to even casual observers like a court-ordered evaluator (Martha Kelly). While Charlie clearly loves his son, his attempts to mimic a healthy parental relationship during visits with Henry resemble some sad farce. At the same time, there’s something off-putting about the way Nicole engineers the legal process to gut the naive and relatively economical disadvantaged Charlie.

“Marriage Story” is a sober, incisive assessment of the domestic legal apparatus — scenes in which Nora runs rings around an outmatched Bert during a settlement meeting and, later, Jay and Nora exchange rapid-fire barbs in court about their opposing clients are among the most authentic onscreen renderings of divorce proceedings. But the film packs its personal punch mainly thanks to the superb cast, particularly the two leads and Dern, who merits Oscar consideration. A scene in which Nicole and Charlie meet sans attorneys to iron out their differences quickly devolves from cordial to caustic in the most believable and heart-wrenching fashion.

There’s a fey, self-indulgent quality to Baumbach’s typical tales about the woes of Upper West Side denizens that hovers over “Marriage Story,” fostering a detachment that keeps some of the emotional impact at arm’s length from the average viewer. Still, this is Baumbach at his most accessible and relatable, from portraying a meat-grinder legal system that humbles participants of every socioeconomic stripe, to a provocative “happy” ending that posits sometimes a marriage must end in order to succeed.

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