From the very first scene of “Marriage Story,” you can tell you’re in good hands. If you go to the movies a lot, you know what I mean: that nameless, soaring feeling you get when you realize you’re watching something special. But what makes “Marriage Story” particularly exciting isn’t just that this realization comes so soon; it’s that it comes from a filmmaker well over a decade in waiting. Writer/director Noah Baumbach has plenty of indie gems on his resume (including “Frances Ha,” a fantastic little film starring Greta Gerwig), but “Marriage Story” feels different, like a kind of second coming — a movie too good to be ignored.
But back to that first scene: a dual montage in which Charlie (Adam Driver) describes in voice-over “what he loves about Nicole” until Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) describes “what she loves about Charlie.” Similar to how Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amélie” introduced its characters by listing what they “liked” and “didn’t like,” Charlie and Nicole are presented here not with broad strokes but by idiosyncrasies; how Charlie eats his food, how Nicole cuts her hair. In a film overflowing with honesty, these moments are somehow its most intimate. After all, we often struggle to put into words why we love the people we do. So, we don’t think in words; we think in memories. We think about the little things, the things you only notice about a person when you love them. In this way, “Marriage Story” instantly invests us in its characters. They feel real.
But as we soon learn, Charlie and Nicole’s relationship is on the ropes. It turns out all those compliments were just a part of marriage counseling; they’re actually drifting apart. It’s not as simple as “not loving each other anymore.” It almost never is. Nicole is an actress who feels suffocated by the avant-garde, New York theatre scene. She hopes to move to LA for a television pilot. But Charlie is comfortable where they are now. He can’t fathom why Nicole would leave New York, where she stars in the plays he directs. Tensions brew, secrets boil to the surface and suddenly Nicole is serving Charlie with divorce papers.
The quiet brilliance of “Marriage Story” is how subtly it builds conflict and how evenly it handles the fallout. Rather than taking a side in the scandal, Baumbach presents both Charlie and Nicole as flawed human beings; emotionally complex individuals who are only doing what is best for themselves and their son (because of course they have a son). But equal credit is due to Driver and Johansson, who are more than deserving of their Oscar nominations with their best work yet. The naturalism of their performances brings a richness to the characters that further elevates Baumbach’s brilliant script. Behind them in fierce supporting roles are Laura Dern (likely to win Best Supporting Actress) and Ray Liotta as their divorce attorneys; Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever also star.
The film was shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan (“The Favourite”) whose use of 35mm makes every image feel authentic; like each scene is a home video with the timestamp blurred out. The score was composed by Randy Newman (yes, that Randy Newman) and it’s just as good as you’d think. Their work makes “Marriage Story” feel like a classic already.
But speaking of classics, I’ve heard many comparisons to “Kramer vs. Kramer” as of late. While the similarities are there, “Marriage Story” is less rip-off than response. Divorce isn’t new to Baumbach; his big break, “The Squid and the Whale,” was about a teenager dealing with his parents’ split. But Baumbach has grown since then, both literally and as a filmmaker, and “Marriage Story” is proof. It’s a tender and absorbing film, available to stream on Netflix. Will it win Best Picture in February? The odds are looking slim. But that doesn’t make “Marriage Story” any less of an achievement. 9/10
This review was originally published on January 16, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.