Quick Hit: A blow to the heart for anyone that has one.
Scarlett Johansson (ScarJo) joined elite company this year when she was nominated both for the Best Performance by a Leading Actress and Best Performance by a Supporting Actress. She also maintains a presence in one of the biggest franchises in history, playing Black Widow in the Avengers series. Adam Driver, for his part, found his way into possibly the only other franchise that could dwarf the Avengers, playing Kylo Ren in the Star Wars saga. And yet, they both found themselves as nominated actors in today’s Best Picture nomination, Marriage Story, director/writer Noah Baumbach’s slow burn dramedy about a couple’s marriage disintegrating before our eyes.
On a personal note, those who know me well will note that this is a subject matter that at times was difficult for me, and other times fascinating as well. I, like Charlie (Driver), am a bit of a crier in movies, due to my sheer investment in the story and characters (providing they’re well-written and acted). I found myself tearing up multiple times in the film, and physically reacting in others – shifting forward in my seat, wrenching backwards, and a myriad of others. So is it any surprise when I have such a good grade when I have such a personal connection to the material?
The movie starts almost as if a collection of home movies, accompanied by voice over. First, we have a description of both Charlie and Nicole (ScarJo) in their own words about the other. These are filled with obvious love and affection and a depth of relationship that anyone in a long term relationship will remember. Then, we find out the context of these letters of love – they’re sitting in a mediator’s office prior to their divorce. The letters are to remind them of the reason they got together in the first place, before the mess that is to come. It’s a sweet, fitting tribute to the end of a relationship that perfectly captures the differences in personality that emerge when you share your life with someone, and how having a child changes what you love about your partner as well. Despite its rough beginnings, both Nicole and Charlie seem ready to move on amiably and are more than happy to compromise in order to keep the other happy.
That is, until lawyers get involved. This starts at the behest of a colleague who gives Nicole the card for Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a high-priced lawyer who represents women during the divorce. After some threatening calls from Nora, Charlie gets his own lawyers – first Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) who is quick with a joke but also maddening in his continued insistence on things that he says won’t or will occur, and then a high powered lawyer named Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), who charges a 25,000 dollar retainer for his services. This is something that Baumbach continually points to throughout the film – the cost of a divorce, both in monetary value and life change. It’s clear by the end of the movie that rarely does any side truly “win” in a divorce. Even when one side gains things they were asking for, it’s often at the expense of something else. The biggest loser – a point that is mentioned continually – is the child.
This screenplay wouldn’t work without incredible performances by both its leads and its supporting players. ScarJo and Driver are fantastic – giving performances that spread the full performance range – from sadness to anger to overwhelming happiness and love. They sell it, and even give vocal performances courtesy of some well-placed Sondheim. It’s a beautiful performance that is truly carried on their backs. But Dern and Liotta do some heavy lifting as well, as they present the case that the system is the only villain in this story. Nearly everyone has their own chance for an extensive monologue, with Dern’s being one of the most moving in the story, in a bit of a direct shot towards Kramer v. Kramer. Hers consists of the discussion that it’s nearly impossible for a woman in court because she has to show both a consistent motherhood to a child and an ability to work as well, because frequently mothers have their own jobs held against them in court.
Baumbach also shows just how much ammo any marriage can generate into barbs during a court battle. From a small misstep on the stairs to a discussion about a move many years prior, it’s all brought into court as evidence of the other’s inability to be a consistent or responsible parent to their child. It’s a haunting conclusion – many think the courts are there to be fair and just – that the system we support is corrupting us as we feed it’s practictioners.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed with the film. It’s nuanced and subtle, brash and bold, colored and monochrome. It covers the spectrum of any relationship, and I’d highly advise everyone to watch it. It’s one of my favorite films from 2019. I’m going to give it an “A+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"