What happens when a marriage ends? Does everything you felt for the person that you — sometimes happily, sometimes painstakingly — built a life with over the years, die a sudden death? Does empathy lose out to an overwhelming urge to hurt the other person or does compassion take over to keep the civility alive, long after the love is gone? Divorce is both a complicated word — and a complicated world. The end of a marriage is the end of a life as one has known it for years together, even as it holds out the promise of a new one. As Nicole (played by Scarlett Johansson) says towards the beginning, “It’s not as simple as not being in love any more”.
Marriage Story starts with the end of a marriage. And yet you won’t feel it in the way you have been conditioned to experience the end of a relationship. This Noah Baumbach-directed film, currently streaming on Netflix, is one of the most stirring portraits of life and relationships seen on screens big and small in a long, long time. The best thing I have watched this year — by a mile — the film rarely packs in any dizzyingly high dramatic moments or debilitating lows in its 136-minute narrative. Marriage Story — like any marriage — trains its lens on the moment-by-moment nitty-gritty that goes into building, and sometimes breaking, relationships. It’s devastating yet uplifting.
Let’s begin at the beginning. For it’s in its first few (very Woody Allen-esque) moments that most of the magic of Marriage Story lies. Taking turns, Nicole and Charlie (Adam Driver) recount — through a voiceover and a montage of their two-gether moments — what they love, and sometimes laughingly loathe, about each other. “She listens, she chooses great presents, she’s brave, she’s a mother who plays... really plays,” he says. She chips in with how he cries easily in movies, “loves being a dad” and “never lets people keep him from what he wants to do”, though she does cheekily add what a sloppy eater he is and almost always “strangles a sandwich” while chomping it down.
It’s a cheerful depiction of a happy marriage that’s sure to set off many on sketching out their own lists. But the scene cuts to Nicole and Charlie sitting with a therapist, their glowing descriptions of each other merely being an exercise in reviewing a marriage on its last legs. As a viewer, the discovery of that scene throws you and yet it’s bittersweet enough to make you break into a smile.
Marriage Story is a punch to the gut, holding up a mirror to relationships — yours, mine, everyone’s. It’s both a laugh-out-loud and cry-out-loud film that manages to move deceptively within rom com territory even as it skilfully trespasses into drama, tragedy and even farce.
Take for instance the moment when Nicole — who’s now shifted back to her mom’s home in Los Angeles, eight-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) in tow, even as Charlie continues to live in New York — persuades sister Cassie to break to Charlie that he’s been served. Charlie — the toast of the theatre world whose new play is headed to Broadway — heads to LA to meet Henry, with both Nicole, a former teen movie star who is in the throes of a resurgence in her career, and he deciding they will not resort to lawyers to end their marriage.
But Nicole has a change of intent, lawyering up with the overbearing Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern is exemplary, clearly continuing in Big Little Lies mode), and she leaves it to Cassie (Merritt Wever) to hand over the papers to an unsuspecting Henry. It’s a scene with shades of tragedy — both Cassie and Nicole’s mom Sandra (an excellent Julie Hagerty) dote on Charlie — that quickly moves into farce. It’s a textbook example of how to bring on the laughs as easily as the sighs.
Marriage Story makes the mundane extraordinary and brings freshness to the cliches, working on the strength of its moments. Nicole’s monologue on how her marriage gradually made her feel “smaller and smaller” is deeply moving, and is yet packed with touches of humour. Scarlett Johansson deserves all the awards — the film is a huge favourite as we move into awards season — for that scene alone, a subtle nod to Meryl Streep’s monologue in another divorce story, Kramer vs Kramer, but one which Johansson makes her own.
Adam Driver churns out a winner with Charlie, self-involved and immature at times and yet a man full of warmth... a lot like many of the men in Baumbach’s earlier works.
It’s the delicate touches that make Marriage Story the film it is. Law may come in the way of love, but even as Nicole and Charlie sit uncomfortably across a table with their lawyers haggling, she doesn’t think twice before ordering him his favourite Greek salad. It only takes a call for him to land up at her doorstep in the middle of the night to repair her jammed gate and she continues trimming his hair the way she has always done.
“Honey” rolls off her tongue easily even when they are screaming the place down. The shouting is actually very rare, culminating in that one scene where his bottled-up angst breaks out in the form of shockingly ugly words. He realises it almost immediately, falling to his knees, even as she reaches out and touches the top of his head. It’s perhaps the most powerful scene in the film, and as a viewer, a range of emotions — many you can’t put a finger on — swell up.
The chatter around the divorce becomes more of a Los Angeles vs New York checklist. “New York is buzzing, LA has space,” and though Baumbach has categorically denied that Marriage Story is autobiographical, there have been whispers about the similarities with his divorce from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (LA vs NYC figured prominently, among other things, in their messy divorce).
But drawn from real life or not, Marriage Story brims with moods and moments that just cannot be acted… they flow naturally and are played out organically. Like the last scene which involves nothing more than nonchalantly tying up a shoelace. Try not tearing up through that one.