Marriage Story – Review: A Devastating Look at Broken Love

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson
Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan

Divorce can be incredibly messy. There are no ifs, ands or buts about that. And when a child is involved in the mix, things can become even more hectic. In Noah Baumbach’s latest American dramedy, Marriage Story, divorce is captured with ugliness and honesty. It’s exceptionally devastating, showcasing the moments from falling out of love to making mistakes and deciding to move on- all decisions that surely impact the parties involved in different ways.

The story follows the strong-willed theatre director Charlie Barber and his wife, Nicole, an actress who happens to support and star in most of Charlie’s plays. In New York, they have a simple and apparent happy life with their young son, Henry. But when their respective happiness starts to unravel- Nicole with having to give up her dreams for Charlie, and Charlie with his transgressions and lack of awareness for others- Nicole surprises him with divorce papers. Their supposed happiness quickly turns into a disastrous marriage, leading to the pains of separation. It gets ugly fast and becomes costly for everyone, including and especially their son.

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019)
courtesy of Netflix

Director Noah Baumbach captures a marriage life cycle in all of its phases with such emotion and detail – almost as if he was directly attached to the story at hand and/or had a personal connection. Whatever the case, it has led to his best work to date. In one of the opening scenes, Charlie and Nicole are in counseling, where they’re tasked to read what they love about one another. Voiceovers and flashbacks reveal to audiences just how in love the two were despite knowing and dealing with each other’s flaws. From this scene alone, I knew I was in for an emotional roller coaster. So, trust me when I say to have the tissues ready.

Whether or not it was Director Baumbach’s intention, for me, Marriage Story does an incredible job of not picking sides. Speaking as a product of divorced parents, I think it’s an essential part of displaying such a dissolution. In this case, the feature made it easy for me to sympathize and understand where both parties were coming from. Conversely, there are also times when it’s hard to like either of them, even knowing that Charlie and Nicole both have excellent viewpoints. But that’s the magic of Baumbach’s script. When you’re not crying in between the heartbreaking scenes, you’re sure to feel some kind of emotion one way or another.

There are also great moments where you can clearly see how much the separation is affecting their son. Henry is young enough to not fully understand the severity behind his parents’ divorce, but old enough to know that Mom and Dad are not happy, which will lead to major life changes. Henry also has difficulty verbalizing what he wants because he doesn’t want to hurt either parent- an honest response during such a trying time. Either way, it’s hard for him to choose a side, just as it may be for audiences alike.

Still of Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story
courtesy of Netflix

At times, Nicole & Charlie’s lawyers go at each other’s throats, leading the broken couple to try and talk about their circumstance. And this is perhaps one of my favorite scenes in film this year. During their discussion, Nicole and Charlie go from cordial to frustrated to angry in seconds, leading to a devastating argument that feels like it lasts for an eternity. It’s brutal, heartbreaking, troublesome and piercingly painful to watch- yet it feels so necessary. During this scene, Driver and Johansson put on a masterclass in acting. They simply bring out the best in each other when their characters resort to bring out each other’s worst. It’s numbing yet wonderful to witness- acting I’ve been yearning for from them regarding both of their careers.

But when the film is not showcasing the devastation brought on by divorce, there are some heartwarming and funny moments. For one, both Driver and Johansson, with their characters being in showbusiness, have scenes in which they get a chance to sing. It adds a charming layer to the script, yet you can see the hurt and pain behind their smiles in their respective scenes. “Somebody crowd me with love. Somebody force me to care” sings Charlie to a room full of vibrant smiles and glee, all the while feeling a devastation brought on by his new predicament. With scenes like this, audiences can expect a subtlety in Marriage Story’s brilliance, but captivation, nonetheless.

When it’s all said and done, no one ever enters a marriage thinking divorce is in their future. But what happens when, against all odds and after weeks and months of counseling, it is the only key to happiness? For Charlie and Nicole, the chances are unlikely. But making this one, life-altering decision just might be their last hope in finding it one way or another.

Rating: ★★★★½

Marriage Story is available in select theaters now and on Netflix starting December 6th!

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