Marriage Story is a bit like Kramer vs. Kramer is if it had been told from the perspectives of both parents. This is a rare film about divorce that doesn’t make it easy for the audience to choose a side. Both people involved are identifiable and even quite likable. Compared to some other couples, they almost make divorce look as easy as a trip to the post office. When a child is at the center of a divorce, though, things can go from cut and dry to cutthroat in the blink of an eye. It just goes to show that there are no real winners in a situation like this… except for the lawyers who are billing both parents by the hour.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are among the finest performers of their generation. Both give career-best performances in Marriage Story as Nicole and Charlie Barber, a couple who’ve been married for several years. The film opens with two exceptionally-written monologues in which Nicole and Charlie affectionately describe one another, misleading us to believe the film will be about their strong bond. It quickly becomes clear, though, that that these two have grown to hate the little things they once loved about each other. All things considered, Nicole and Charlie get along about as well as any two people who’ve fallen out of love can. Matters become complicated, however, when Nicole relocates to California to pursue her acting career while Charlie stays in New York to continue his theater work, requiring their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) to fly back and forth across the country.
To spare her son the commute, Nicole decides to seek out legal advice and soon enough starts gearing up for a court case. Laura Dern couldn’t be more calculating as Nora Fanshaw, the kind of lawyer who wants to be your friend but also wants your money. This forces Charlie to consult a lawyer played by Ray Liotta, who’s ready to go to war before he’s even officially hired. Charlie thus decides to seek out a more easygoing lawyer played by Alan Alda, although he also has an insanely high retainer. Even with lawyers in their corners, Nicole and Charlie believe they can remain civil. Things get ugly, however, as they begin to contemplate what’s best for their son, what’s best for their careers, and what’s best for the remnants they used to call a family. By the end, it’s the lawyers who’re doing all the talking for them.
Renée Zellweger’s portrayal of Judy Garland seemed like a surefire bet for the Best Actress Oscar, but Johansson may’ve secured her victory with one scene alone. In what’s possibly the most memorizing moment in her filmography, Johansson delivers a vulnerable, emotionally-grueling speech about what it means to give a fraction of your identity to a spouse. Driver is just as empathetic as a man trying his best to balance work and fatherhood, coming up short on both fronts. There’s an especially gut-wrenching/hilarious sequence in which Charlie hosts a dinner for a social worker, which escalades from bad, to worse, to something out of a horror story. Between Johansson and Driver, you’re unlikely to see a better pair of performances all year.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach previously brought us The Squid and the Whale, which explored how two children deal with their parents’ divorce. Marriage Story is the other side of the coin, observing how parents manage divorce while raising a child. Just as families can ignite multiple emotions at once, Baumbach has made another film that’s simultaneously funny, heartbreaking, heartwarming, and borderline uncomfortable to watch. No matter how the film leaves you feeling, it’s always an honest portrait of a failed marriage. Just because a marriage is a failure, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that a family can’t still be a success.