Marriage Story

 

                This one will sink its hooks into you and not let go for the whole excruciating 136 minutes.  It’s called a marriage story, but it’s really about the breakup.  And it’s so painful to watch that inevitable slide toward estrangement.

                Oh, we begin positively.  The mediator had asked the divorcing couple to first write out, in longhand, all that they really liked about the spouse: the things that made them fall in love with them in the first place.  The mediator said that he thinks that’s an important thing to remember at the beginning of the process.  And so we’re regaled with compliments about the wife, voiced by the husband, and then the husband, voiced by the wife.  It’s beautifully done, and very touching.  But then, when the mediator asks them to read aloud what they’d written to each other, she refuses.  She doesn’t want to do it, even though he’s willing.  And she gets up and slams the door in a huff, and we are hereby served notice that this isn’t going to be as easy as both of them said they hoped it would be.

                Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) was from L.A., and her Mom was a television actress, but she met Charlie (Adam Driver), an aspiring theater director, and when they got married she starred in his plays.  They both enjoyed success.   The had a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and they seemed like a happy family, but there was tension underneath.  She felt that he didn’t take seriously her desire to be an actress on television in L.A.  He would discuss it, but then dismiss it, because their life was in New York.  But then, when she gets offered a part in a pilot, she decides she really wants to go do that.  Charlie is supportive to a point---but he always assumed that once her gig was over, she (and Henry) would return to New York.  But she says she never assumed that.  She wants him to follow her to L.A. But his play has just made Broadway, and so his work is there.  And there’s the intractable difference.

                Of course once the lawyers get involved, the rancor rises to a new level.  Her attorney (Laura Dern) knows how to be gracious, but when she’s in attack mode she’s a formidable opponent.  He keeps claiming that they were going to try to handle this themselves, without lawyers, but now it’s too late for that.  At first, he hires an affable family friend (Alan Alda), but then, when he figures out how quickly that nice guy is ready to give in to her insistence on Henry living in L.A., he hires his own attack attorney (Ray Liotta).  Now every little slip-up is magnified and thrown out there for all to examine.  The judge, exasperated, orders a supposedly neutral observer.  Charlie’s routine is extraordinarily affected by all the necessary trips to L.A., including establishing a domicile other than a hotel room.  Nicole has her dysfunctional family to support her, but there are moments when her interaction with Charlie is going to seem almost tender, until it tragically breaks down into the almost-inevitable mutual recrimination.

                It’s painful to watch.  But both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are superb in their multi-faceted roles.  (And as a bonus, Driver sings a touching rendering of Sondheim's “Being Alive,” from the musical “Company”.) Writer and Director Noah Baumbach has given them a powerful script to deliver, and is not afraid to allow the viewer to feel the angst.  The agony of the dissolution is palpable enough to suggest some Academy Awards nominations.  But it’s not fun for anybody.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association