Famed writer/director Noah Baumbach is coming off a hot-streak of great films, from Mistress America (2015) to The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), but strikes a home run in 2019 with one of his best projects to date, Marriage Story.
Marriage Story takes a look into the lives of a stage director and his actor wife enduring a gruelling divorce and trying to keep the family together, while seemingly being pushed further apart. As the subject matter dictates, this is an emotionally heavy story, and one that doesn’t lend itself to a light afternoon watch. It’s a literal rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows that will, at times, put a smile on your face then bring you to tears in a matter of minutes. Noah Baumbach tells this story with a deft touch of sensitivity and realism to evoke strong reactions from the audience and it works phenomenally well. The writing here is exceptional across every scene. The dialogue is utterly flawless, none of it comes across as scripted and it all works to make you care about the characters because you see them as real people enduring a difficult time in their life that many can relate to.
The film sits at 2 hours and 16 minutes long, but aside from the first 30 minutes where you get introduced to this family and the current state of their relationship, time feels like it stands still, in a good way. By the half-way mark, the writing and the performances have you so engrossed in the story that you stop worrying about the time, and instead, focus on the attempts of this family to go through a peaceful divorce that is as unobtrusive to the life of their son as possible. The storytelling is impeccable from beginning to end, it’s all connected and it takes turns that you don’t see coming but are natural to the development of the main characters. It may be one of the most “realistic” and compassionate insights into a divorce that doesn’t go 100% smoothly that’s ever been put on screen and that’s rather impressive.
There are a number of deeply impactful and memorable scenes spread throughout this film that you will think about long after it’s over. Although, there is one argument scene that stands out above the rest and is hands down the most well crafted scene of the film… actually… it’s a perfect scene. From the dialogue to the framing and the long takes to the performances, this is one of those scenes that everyone will think about as soon as the title of the film is mentioned. It’s truly phenomenal, and despite only running for around six minutes long it feels like a 20 minute scene because of how emotionally exhausting it is. A real masterclass on everyone’s part.
I mentioned the performances, but there are not enough words to highlight the strength of what both Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver manage to do in this film. They both deliver what may be the performances of their careers and will no doubt make a splash at the upcoming Oscars and probably win, depending on who the competition is. They both delve deep into their characters and find the deepest qualities to bring out and make them feel immensely real so you care deeply about their wellbeing. The emotion they both bring out through their performances is unbelievable and the back and forth conversations they have are thrilling to watch as these two seperate parties clash while also not wanting to clash at the same time.
As well as the scenes they share together, there are a number of solo moments and scenes they share with other supporting characters that give you a greater insight into what they’re going through at each point in the story. Of those supporting characters, Laura Dern stands out the most with a quite chilling performance as Nora, a character who irks you for reasons you love but also despise at the same time. It’s a strong performance to be able to stand out and make an impact while Johansson and Driver are stealing the show. Azhy Robertson who plays the son in the middle of the divorce puts in a strong performance that’s emotionally engaging even though he doesn’t have a tonne relying on him. What matter is that his chemistry with Johansson and Driver is strong enough to make you buy the fact they they’re a family and it most certainly is.
The cinematography by Robbie Ryan is on point and captures the world and characters in a way that feels strikingly intimate and enhances the emotional weight of a number of scenes. But the real behind-the-scenes star for me, aside from Noah Baumbach is Randy Newman who delivers a poignant score that, just like the cinematography, brings an additional layer of emotion to process. It really is like this whole package ties in and weaves together so intricately that you almost can’t pick out an obvious flaw.
In the end, Marriage Story is a phenomenal piece of art that blends clever storytelling and incredible directing with astounding performances and deeply impactful emotion that will bring you smiles and tears at regular intervals. It may very well sweep the lead acting awards at the upcoming Oscars and you’ll no doubt see it appear across a number of categories. This is a must-watch if anyone wants to see an emotionally taxing film that’s also somewhat pleasant, charming and deeply engaging.