Having worked at the Netflix coalface way before Scorsese and Bay, Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories) returns with this vivisection of post-marital bliss.
Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are the hottest things in New York with the former being the next thing in theatre direction and the latter following behind as his muse and leading lady. When we meet the couple, they’ve decided to part to pursue different ventures: Nicole has landed a TV role in her hometown of Los Angeles and Charlie has elected to stay in New York to focus on theatre work. Despite having a young son, the two appear to think they can make it work.
In the film’s opening scene, both parties introduce the other to the audience through a montage that highlights their main qualities. This love in is undercut when it’s revealed that it’s part of a pre-divorce therapy session; a way for the couple, now entering a state of conscious uncoupling, to remember the reasons why they fell for each other in the first place. Despite some protestations from Nicole around the practice, the couple seems to be darting towards an amicable separation that will have the least impact on their son. Or at least, that’s what Charlie thinks.
Things start going south when Nicole hires a lawyer to help move things forward a bit quicker. Although not done out of any form of spite or malice, the hiring of Nora (Laura Dern) becomes the lynchpin to misunderstandings, soul searching and airing of past grievances.
Marriage Story is clearly a personal film. Not one to shy away from using personal experiences as cinematic fodder (See: The Squid and The Whale), Baumbach has been open about how the film touches upon his own experiences of divorce as well as those of his friends. And that’s maybe why Marriage Story feels so broad in its characterisations and exploration of how divorce proceedings can be such an impersonal affair.
Marriage Story feels like the director had a checklist of ‘experiences’ he wanted to get through, instead of taking a deep dive into the lives of his protagonists. The film says so little while trying to say so much. Passive fights about how to best raise their son are gateways to the inevitable third-act conflict that you know is just looming around the corner. Elsewhere, Baumbach relies on clunking symbolism to make the audience think. If Charlie’s Halloween costume as the Invisible Man doesn’t land, then cast your eyes to the moment when their son’s latest act of rebellion leads to mum and dad both literally pulling him in different directions. Equally, the couple’s lawyers, played by Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, are nothing more than stereotypes; the kind of which we’ve seen countless times.
What’s frustrating is how great both Johansson and Driver are. Like their characters, they work well together, navigating a storm of emotions that sees the couple caring for each other, but realising that they can’t live with each other anymore. For evidence, look no further than the aforementioned third-act fight, which sees Nicole and Charlie tearing strips off each other in a way they haven’t been able to do during court proceedings. It’s a great scene, no doubt. However, one scene doesn’t make a whole film. Remove it and you’re left with a slightly cloying affair that feels emotionally exploitative. One where, despite everything the characters go through, no one really feels like they’ve changed or grown.
Despite a promising start, and a pivotal scene that will be mined for memes as much it’s highlighted for awards, Marriage Story is disappointingly not the sum of its parts.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★☆☆☆
‘Marriage Story’ is now available for streaming on Netflix right HERE.