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Marriage Story

January 1, 2020

Marriage Story (2019)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Actors: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern

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Synopsis: Married couple, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), work their way through an increasingly fraught divorce which also affects their young son.

Review: Although unquestionably a touch didactic and conceited, and more studied and performative than its veneer of naturalism would let on, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is still a largely moving endeavour, helped by performances of real sway and force from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, and that it elucidates the tribulations and absurdity of the institution of marriage really intelligently at times.

Probably Baumbach’s finest achievement is to pinpoint the sheer gut-wrenching pain involved in a marriage break-up, especially between two essentially civil and decent human beings. The quagmire Charlie and Nicole find themselves in is what really drives the wedge between them and creates the story’s agonising undertow. The geographical dislocation – Charlie is a New York man and Nicole has relocated back to Los Angeles with their son – adds to the almost tangible sense of tyrannous stress, cleverly outed in a sequence where Charlie’s many draining cross-continental journeys are heralded by a sombre dissolve from him walking down Times Square to emerging in an insalubrious LAX car park. Incidentally, the New York-Los Angeles dichotomy was already played by Baumbach both rhetorically and pictorially in his underrated Greenberg.

That marriage is an institution the legal profession has monetised to the hilt is another feature well dramatised by Baumbach. His rhetoric never overtly demonises Laura Dern’s seemingly heroic attorney for Nicole, but I think, by the end, Baumbach is slyly pushing us to see that she’s not far removed from the machinations of Ray Liotta’s more demonstrably reptilian lawyer.

Perhaps my marginal contention with the film is that there is this continual tension between its aspirations towards something classically dramatic and its rather conceited screwball quirks that oversell those profundities. Baumbach would have been better playing it straighter, as the film is stronger in its more sincere moments and weaker where he tries to push supposed truisms through gurning conceits. Charlie getting served by Nicole’s sister Cassie in a comically awkward way felt disingenuous, and the scene where a female lawyer comes to witness the routine and rapport between Charlie and his son appeared unrealistic, with Baumbach over-emphasising the cold absurdity of such a task, when, in actuality, I’m sure it’s a much more human and less clinical experience.

Still, by the story’s close, Baumbach elicits great poignancy as the narrative makes an ellipses forward to when Charlie and Nicole are more amicable again, moving on with their lives, and perhaps even able to rectify some of the mistakes they made in the divorce proceedings. It’s a sign of Baumbach’s status as an assured actors’ director and keeps him well in the conversation as one of America’s most important contemporary filmmakers. (December 2019)

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