We’ve been told there’s two sides to every story.
Often it feels as if it’s as simple as the truth and then anything other than the truth.
But what happens when both sides of the story are true but conflict, or worse yet, outright contradict one another?
Writer/director Noah Baumbach explores this complex duality through the structure of a fractured relationship in his latest dramedy, “Marriage Story,” a semi-autobiographical film about finding oneself amid divorce.
“Marriage Story” finds New York theater director Charlie and actress Nicole working on their marital issues when Nicole is offered a television pilot in Los Angeles. When Charlie visits California to see Nicole and their young son Henry, divorce papers await as the couple’s relationship dissolves.
Baumbach’s personal film requires a pair of performers singularly focused on feeling the moment and his selection of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson to play the ill-fated couple could not have been more perfect.
Charlie is exactly the kind of slightly neurotic, disengaged character Driver relishes portraying and he gives Charlie just enough warmth to be a man that audiences will root for as a father, but not so much to prevent doubt from seeping in as to his ignorance of Nicole.
Charlie’s directorial instincts pushing him to control every aspect of life are brushed aside by circumstances that prevent him from unilateral decision making, giving Driver ample room to find Charlie in a place of re-discovery as both Driver and the character sort through the emotional ballast of the film.
Johansson finds an emotional fragility in Nicole that endears audiences to her, while slowly beginning to discover her individuality outside her marriage as if she were a caged bird given a key to freedom unsure what to do with an unlocked door.
If Driver’s Charlie is finding himself again, Johansson portrays Nicole as a woman finding herself for the first time, becoming increasingly emboldened over the course of “Marriage Story” without losing the tremendous heart displayed early in the film.
Paired together, Driver and Johansson move in synchronicity, pushing and pulling apart magnetically as scenes between the duo often feel like live theater shot on camera. Neither performance works without the other being equally exceptional and Baumbach beautifully adjusts the audience’s relationship to each character as viewers bounce back and forth between the two.
There’s a sense of perspective reflected back on itself by another person – Charlie to Nicole, Nicole to Charlie – appears to each character to be the antithesis of themselves. Each sees the other through their own jaded lens and neither side tells nor understands the full story.
Baumbach emphasizes this duality through blocking, physically positioning Charlie and Nicole at odds with each other in the same frame or from fractured one-shots that push each to their respective corners visually.
The film’s deep and talented cast was recently honored with the Robert Altman Award by the Independent Spirit Awards, given to the year’s best ensemble in an independent film.
Laura Dern will likely earn her third Oscar nomination with a driven supporting turn as Nicole’s take-no-prisoners attorney Nora, whom Dern infuses life into with a charismatic flair that radiates off the screen at every turn. In the most positive sense, it’s as if Dern is operating in a different film altogether, giving Nora a brazen edge that allows Johansson to explore Nicole’s internal emotions without becoming overly explosive.
Ray Liotta provides significant spark in scenes as a hotshot lawyer Charlie meets with, while Alan Alda’s calming presence is a wonderful change of pace as another potential attorney. Watching Driver react to the variety in Liotta and Alda’s work offers some of the film’s most refreshingly light-hearted moments.
Duality is key in all aspects of “Marriage Story.” Scenes, shots of cinematography, acting, camera placement each feel and accentuate this wavering plurality.
It’s evident that Baumbach has truly considered both Charlie and Nicole’s perspective and there’s true effort to maintain a balance for the audience between Driver and Johansson’s performances.
However, Baumbach clearly holds a sub-textual preference for Charlie’s relative plight, often siding with Driver’s character in the meticulously crafted screenplay. This comes to a head during a pivotal scene midway through the film where Charlie laments Nicole for being upset by a cheating accusation rather than sharing a laugh with someone else.
By the end, “Marriage Story” ultimately becomes “Charlie’s Story” as Nicole’s perspective fades and crystalizes while Driver continues to evolve Charlie into something more.
Visually, “Marriage Story” achieves the cracks in Charlie and Nicole’s relationship through camera placement combined with expert cinematography from Oscar nominee Robbie Ryan, who maintains a muted, yet dynamic energy to the aesthetic of the film. There isn’t a film this year that does a better job of informing character with cinematography than Ryan and Baumbach achieve with “Marriage Story.”
A critical darling that will be equally loved by awards voters, “Marriage Story” is all but assured Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and acting nods for Driver, Johansson and Dern. How this film fares will likely have much to do with Netflix’s dual-prong campaign that sees the streaming studio trying to bevy the chances of both “Marriage Story” and Martin Scorsese’s mob epic “The Irishman.”
Netflix may opt to push either film into frontrunner status or continue equal efforts that may negate either movie and propel Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” across the finish line.
It’s a shame that Baumbach’s meticulously considered, wonderfully crafted drama was not given the same large theatrical run by Netflix as Scorsese received with “The Irishman” as “Marriage Story” is perhaps the finest family drama to be released since at least 2008’s “Revolutionary Road.”
Deeply thoughtful, emotional and yet surprisingly entertaining, “Marriage Story” is without question one of 2019’s top five films and a must see in theaters or streaming at home on Netflix.