Title: Marriage Story
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Driver & Scarlett Johansson with Alan Alda, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta & Azhy Robertson
Produced by: Noah Baumbach & David Heyman
“… an evocative allegory for our divisive times.”
Reel Talk - Marriage Story (2019)
Marriage Story is a forceful showcase for immense talent and an evocative allegory for our politically and culturally divisive times. Noah Baumbach’s talent for writing intricate and intimate material is applied with aplomb in Marriage Story, serving up detailed character portraits for Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver on a silver platter that they both act out to perfection.
Baumbach’s latest project chronicles the divorce of theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver) and actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). Despite their mutual desire for an amicable end to their marriage, things turn acrimonious when they are confronted with the realities of divorce and the depth of their differences.
In Nicole, Scarlett Johansson might be said to have found her fictional doppelgänger—not least because of the life stories they share in common but because Nicole is such a fully realized character with a complete set of human experiences of her own.
She pushes Johansson to the limits of her abilities in a manner that feels both fortuitous and epiphanic for both Nicole and Johansson. It’s the right role at the right time for Johansson and another brilliant career choice. It’s also another addition for Johansson—alongside her performance in Under the Skin—to any serious list of “Best Screen Performances”.
As Charlie, Adam Driver might not be as obvious a choice. Nevertheless, he more than earns some Oscar-gold and a place on that list of “Best Screen Performances” at least twice-over in this film. His portrayal of a man broken by his failed marriage is so honest and unguarded that it can be difficult to watch but impossible to turn away from. Industry-insider preference for bigger and bolder roles to subtler ones may explain why Joaquin Phoenix won out over Driver for his portrayal of Arthur Fleck in 2019’s Joker but they are equally compelling performances in equally compelling films.
Laura Dern’s performance, however, is nothing we haven’t seen from her before nor does it compare to the range displayed by Florence Pugh in Little Women who she beat out for her Oscar-win. In fact, any of the other women in the Actress in a Supporting Role category would have had more reason to walk-off with the little golden man than Dern but don’t let that detract from her performance. It was, perhaps, the most competitive category at the Oscars and Dern did, nonetheless, bring some levity to a serious film. Dern’s win at the 92nd Academy Awards may have had more to do with recognition of her career and what the character she portrayed symbolized than the actual performance itself. It would be a true shame, however, if Dern’s character in Marriage Story stands as a positive symbol of contemporary feminism because she was written to be unlikeable—a mean, angry, jaded and petty woman.
Nevertheless, with two of the best performances of the decade from 2010-2020, Marriage Story might feel like a mere showcase for acting talent. But Baumbach has something to say about the people from whom we find ourselves on opposing sides. There is an allegory in this story that, should we all unpack it, might serve as a balm for the gaping wounds that have been inflicted on and by either side in our politically divisive times.
A line from 2015’s Carol, spoken by Cate Blanchett’s character to her husband, comes to mind as a neat and tidy summary: “[…] if we go to court, it will get ugly. And we’re not ugly people, Harge.” It’s a sobering line for its incisive candor that hints at the reasons that brought us together and gives us hope that despite our differences, as decent people, we all still want the same thing.