Marriage Story 2019 ****

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It’s always concerning when people are queuing up to tell you how good a movie is; despite the roar of the critics, a 137 minute analysis of a marriage breakdown really does need some pull quotes to sell it. ‘See the star of Avengers in a custody dispute with the star of Star Wars’ doesn’t sound like it’ll put bums on seats, but then again, this is a Netflix production, so the bums don’t have to be enticed from their sofas. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film has genuine star power in the form of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as functional click-bait, and although it’s a the kind of self-conscious art movie that uses to pack indie cinemas, it should find quite a few takers with a contentious he-said/she-said narrative that engages and chills at the same time.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a NYC theatre director, Nicole (Johansson) is his wife, and they have a son to take care of. Their decade-long relationship seems to be fizzling out; she’s got work in LA that expands and contracts, he’s locked into the creative lottery of Broadway and off-Broadway. Both of them get to sing a song to illustrate their theatrical backgrounds, although his rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive is far superior to her family pastiche. Indeed, Marriage Story isn’t as balanced as has been suggested; like Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, this is divorce from a man’s POV, with Nicole’s hard-nosed career aspirations making her an antagonist to Charlie’s soft-headed sentiment.

It soon becomes obvious that Charlie’s hang-dog charms have led him to infidelity, although Baumbach is more interested in the cold aftermath than the passion, and Nicole’s coldness is not without justification. But the weight of sympathetic set-pieces falls heavily in Charlie’s favour; there’s a sensational late scene involving a knife that’s so fiercely, blackly comic that it could only have come from real experience, and draws gasps and groans of empathy.

Marriage Story promises lots of shouting and angst, but the grounded, realistic expansion of Charlie and Nicole’s feud to include lawyers, families and passing strangers provides opportunities for weapons-grade acting from Driver and Johansson, neither of whom have bettered the performances they give here. Driver nails Charlie’s addiction to lost causes, and suggests a deep, lonely soul desperate to fulfil the coveted role of father. Johansson softens the bitter edge of Nicole’s desire for escape and reveals something more tender; her desire to be the best mother she can necessitates taking care of herself, and Nicole comes across far more genuine that Meryl Streep did in Kramer.

Perhaps 137 minutes is a run-time which lacks discipline, but there are long, compelling stretches of old-school drama here. And as a bonus, there’s a wealth of star-studded turns here, all highly enjoyable, from Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as expensive lawyers, to Alan Alda as a not so expensive lawyer. Marriage Story is the most mature work from Baumbach so far, a complex view of good people who find that goodness isn’t enough to immunise them against the insidious viruses of past-vanity and domestic over-reach. It’s a parable for our time; the blue skies and clear vistas of LA are contrasted with the cold and dirty feelings of the human heart, and there’s no winners here other than the audience, who should marvel at the strength of self-analysis contained in Marriage Story for years to come.