Marriage Story

Review by Matt Thrift @Matt_Cinephile

Directed by

Noah Baumbach

Starring

Adam Driver Laura Dern Scarlett Johansson

Anticipation.

Noah Baumbach has always been solid-to-great, so where will his latest land?

Enjoyment.

Devastatingly powered by one knockout performance after another.

In Retrospect.

Baumbach is now definitely one of the greats.

Noah Baumbach delivers what just might be his masterpiece with this bitterly funny divorce drama.

Having just been served his divorce papers, Charlie (Adam Driver) wanders across the first floor landing of his wife’s family home, looking at the framed pictures on the wall. One of them is a cut-out from a magazine, a feature about the couple’s successful theatre company titled ‘Scenes From a Marriage.’

It’s a nod from writer/director Noah Baumbach towards the ne plus ultra of marital-breakdown dramas, Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 miniseries of the same name; a let’s- just-get-this-out-of-the-way acknowledgement from a filmmaker who’s suffered comparisons to the Swedish maestro and his disciple, Woody Allen, throughout his career, a symptom of the superficially comparable well-to-do milieus that his characters tend to inhabit.

If the title of Baumbach’s 11th dramatic feature shares a Bergman-esque directness, it’s an altogether kinder proposition than its venomous antecedent. It’s a funnier one too, dancing between genre licks with all the grace of a Golden Age hoofer.

The serving of divorce papers plays like pure screwball, as Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole tries to make things easier on her husband with the help of her mum and sister, orchestrated by Baumbach through a series of entrances, exits and lots of overlapping dialogue. The 136 minute running time is no rarity these days, but its construction, through a series of long, living and breathing ‘scenes’ that each come with an actual beginning and end, feels genuinely refreshing.

It’s a film of devastating cumulative power, even-handed and empathetic in its approach to two characters whose relationship has broken down, but who still want the best for their child and each other. Steered by a trio of lawyers in the form of Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda, the ‘business’ of divorce proceeding foments a breakdown in civility, leading to a pair of knockout scenes: an argument of winding cruelty, and a home visit from a social worker (Martha Kelly, magnificent) that swiftly descends into wince-inducing farce.

Baumbach’s formal conceits prove at once staggering and delicately measured, from an extended monologue delivered by Johansson that the filmmaker steadily pushes in on, to a diptych of musical numbers from Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’, the latter of which, as performed by Adam Driver, is destined to set you scrambling for a second pack of tissues.

It almost seems unfair to single out one performance among a cast bringing its A-game across the board – and any cast including Alan Alda faces some serious competition – but Driver is truly revelatory. So often cerebral or sardonic, if never less than intelligent in previous roles, with Marriage Story he seems to have access to an emotional range heretofore unseen, landing the heaviest of the knockout punches.

The film’s successive and collective triumphs, though, really belong at Baumbach’s door. Gone is archness and intellectualism that threatened his previous work as writer/director, replaced with a tenderness and emotional truthfulness so generous and empathetic that he’s finally earned contention as one of the greatest American filmmakers of his generation.

Published 13 Nov 2019

Tags: Adam Driver Laura Dern Noah Baumbach Ray Liotta Scarlett Johansson

Anticipation.

Noah Baumbach has always been solid-to-great, so where will his latest land?

Enjoyment.

Devastatingly powered by one knockout performance after another.

In Retrospect.

Baumbach is now definitely one of the greats.

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