As with an actual marriage, don't enter into Marriage Story without thinking it through. You may love Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson (and if you are a sentient Earthling, you probably do, as they are two of our best working actors right now) but don't hit "play" on Netflix before clocking the commitment. The movie is 136 minutes, but the recovery period is, well, at least the rest of the night.
It's been a good long while that I've been so thoroughly devastated by a movie. But Noah Baumbach's Oscar-buzzed drama is anything but manipulative. When you come out the other end, like the characters themselves, you'll be exhausted. But all your tears will have been earned. Baumbach has made some terrific films over the years, like The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha,and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),but this is far and away the best thing he's done. And it's also the best movie of 2019.
It's called Marriage Story but it's all about divorce. In a way that Saving Private Ryan showed us, as best as it could, what a battle is really like, this takes us through the indignity and anguish of what two caring, mature and likable people go through when splitting up and figuring out child custody. What makes the movie even more miraculous is an extremely balanced story. During the scenes with Charlie (Driver), you tend to be more on his side, but when we check in with Nicole (Johansson), it's amazing how quickly your allegiances will switch. This is all the more striking considering that Baumbach is the writer-director and the parallels between this film and the events in his private life easily sync up. (I'm not going to dish, but if you go into this movie forgetting who the real life Baumbach's current ex-wife is, you'll be reminded when you see clips from the "risqué teen comedy" Nicole starred in years ago.)
It kicks off with a double-montage of happy days, two young, vibrant people falling in love and expressing what it is about the other that makes them feel so warm and alive. Then we cut to reveal that this was a writing exercise done at the behest of a divorce mediator, hoping they could start the process from a place of mutual respect. We, the audience, hear both letters. The characters do not.
The world of Marriage Story seems like an enviable one. Middle-class New Yorkers with gratifying jobs (he, an experimental theater director, she an actress) raising a wonderful son in an enriched milieu. It's the world people Noah Baumbach's age fantasized about living in when watching Woody Allen's movies as a kid. But beneath the surface, there are problems. Charlie is a manipulator. Not a malicious one, but a classic "big ego" man who does all the thinking for his wife. It's an extension of their work relationship — he directs her — and now, years later, she's lost her entire identity. And it's going to take a very long time for Charlie to recognize that he was in the wrong.
Along the way, though, Nicole allows her push toward freedom to go in a "take no prisoners" direction. She hires an attorney (Laura Dern, and, wow, is this a juicy role) and she quickly goes scorched earth. One can argue after the fact if this is a) another example of Nicole being pushed into something she doesn't want to do or b) the only way for Nicole to break her chains. (Earlier, Charlie had her convinced that "they didn't need lawyers.") This is the type of movie that merits that kind of post-screening discussion. Either way, the mental anguish and lost funds (Charlie wins a "genius grant," and quickly pisses it away on fees) is devastating.
Charlie's first lawyer is a kindly but impotent man (Alan Alda). His second is a killer, played by Ray Liotta, who is strangely cordial to Dern's character outside the courtroom. This is business as usual for them, and even a little bit of a game. But Charlie and Nicole are fighting for their child, their dignity, and what they feel is right.
And they are both kinda right! That's what's so sad about this damn movie. It concludes the way it has to conclude, in utter exhaustion, with us in awe of two people who are still good inside after all the terrible things they've said. When the Randy Newman score kicks in at the end, it's all over. Kleenex time. Double-ply.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson acting their guts out is enough to make a movie worth your while, but Baumbach's script is pointed and assured. Also: he's not a playwright, he knows how to weave together a montage and precisely where to put the camera. Directors aren't often given the praise for domestic dramas the way they would get for something with, I dunno, hitmen or World War I battles done in a single take. But Marriage Story is great in every sense. Now if you'll excuse me I have to go in the shower and cry.
TV Guide Rating: 5/5
Marriage Story is in limited theatrical release and will stream on Netflix on Friday, Dec. 6.