Saturday, March 21, 2020






Run Time: 137 min.


A love story through the lens of a divorce.  
Searing yet compassionate.

The movie opens with two affecting monologues where Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) Barber list all the things they like about the other. 
She really listens when someone is talking, she loves playing with their son, she is amazing at opening jars and she never closes a cabinet. 
He is undaunted by setbacks, he is very competitive and energy conscious, he is a great dad and he cries easily at movies. 
It serves as a warm and affectionate opening till we realize that this is an exercise mandated by the mediator who is facilitating their divorce.  He wants them to recognize why they got together in the first place.  However, since Nicole is too embarrassed to share her list, they forego the session.

Charlie is a bright theater director in New York who is trying to move his play to Broadway.  Nicole is former teen film actress who stars in his play.  They have been married for a decade or so and have an eight year old son, Henry.  The couple has had a bumpy ride with some separations in the past that are hinted at.  This time it appears to be more serious as Nicole has a pilot to film in L.A. and is taking Henry with her.

They initially agree to not involve lawyers but one of them takes the advice of a well-meaning friend and engages a lawyer, primarily to step back from the situation and seek some resolution. It is not important which one of them went to the lawyer first as it could just as well have been the other.  But this invites the ruthless practice of family law and the domestic court system and Baumbach serves up a seething indictment. 

Nicole engages a high powered attorney Nora (Laura Dern) to represent her and that leads to Charlie seeking out help, first with an overpowering Jay (Ray Liotta) and then a grandfatherly soul, Bert (Alan Alda) who has one of the best descriptions of divorce with a child involved: It's like a death without a body.  How true that is, since there is loss, grief, anger, denial et al.  Once the lawyers are involved, it is the end of amicability.  Noah Baumbach draws a vivid picture of what two well-meaning reasonable people become during a split.  They end up saying and doing things that they never would have thought they could do to the other.  Digging up dirt, invading privacy, using a child against the other, they become people they wouldn't recognize.  And all this while remaining partners who still care for each other.

That is the thing about divorce (or a split).  Even in the absence of malice, it turns two reasonable individuals into bitter rivals trying to get what each thinks is the best outcome for all.  In doing so, it becomes less so about what's best for the child they love but more about "winning".  This is a point driven home by Baumbach about the lawyers who practice family law.  They are always looking for a winner and therefore a loser.  It is a ruthless practice that disallows any compassion for the relationship that will continue after the formalities are concluded.  It feels that the mediator route was perhaps more empathetic.  He starts out by seeking out the good in the relationship and then perhaps would have anchored the break-up on that.

Baumbach is somewhat preoccupied with divorce and it shows up in his work.  His earlier film The Squid and the Whale was based on his experience as a child of his parents' divorce.  It is said that this film is based on his divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh and he shows a much steadier hand as a director.  He is careful in not picking sides in his narration and leaves it up to the viewers if they choose to be neutral or not.  Charlie and Nicole are fundamentally decent, likeable and imperfect as most of our friends are.  Surely there are divorces where sides could be taken objectively but this is not a story of every divorce.  This is a careful study of a particular divorce and Baumbach is committed to delivering two fully realized characters.

Both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson have been good before but this is a new milestone for each one of them.  Scarlett Johansson delivers a character that is a far cry from the familiar Black Widow.  Her Nicole is not very introspective and analyzes her relationship live as she is narrating it to her lawyer. It is done very naturally and develops a layered character.  Driver's Charlie is bright, caring and somewhat self absorbed.  Towards the end, he delivers a Sondheim song, Being Alive, at a bar which is very emotional and certainly draws from Charlie's internal turmoil.  Apart from the leads, Marriage Story benefits greatly from all the supporting roles, especially Laura Dern and Alan Alda.  Driver and Johansson are particularly good in a scene they have in a soulless apartment.  It is the kind of fight that partners never think they will have but are unknowingly capable of.  One where you say things you never would have expected yourself to say.  But as long term partners know, when such things are said, we know where they come from and why they need to be forgiven by each other.

We get to know the Barbers quite well and it is evident that they truly care deeply for each other but just can't be together any longer.  By the end, one hopes that they find happiness in the aftermath of the divorce.  The ending seems to suggest so and that is satisfying.  This is a thought provoking film and I would recommend partners in a long term relationship to watch it... perhaps not together.

"Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best, divorce lawyers see good people at their worst."
    - a minor character (Ted)           

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