Marriage Story — a film review by Gary Chew
I wish Noah Baumbach had written and made his latest film, Marriage Story, decades ago. That way, perhaps I could have been better equipped to live as a young man with a modicum of wisdom… going forward into middle-age and, now, geezer hood. That’s why Marriage Story breached the border of excruciating for me. Not because the picture runs nearly two and a half hours, but that every scene in the movie, I have lived. Not precisely as Baumbach has written it; however, close enough for me to know his film speaks painful truths.
Baumbach would be quick to say his screen play is not about his actual marriage, break up and divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Lee, who first came to the screen in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I’m not going for that yarn spun by this young, talented filmmaker… not gonna go for any of that, Noah.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play a married couple with an 8-year-old son. They’re in what we call “show biz.” Nicole is a well-known film and television actress and Charlie is a successful stage director. The film is canted to a modern, realistic, everyday lifestyle, so it took me a few minutes to realize that Nicole and Charlie are pretty hip and with it in New York City and Los Angeles; not real fancy, high rollers, but a pair that rolls high enough to be caught in the back and forth of the “show biz” that geographically and philosophically separates the east and west coasts. We can’t forget how much Woody Allen loved to take glib, cinematic pot shots at Hollywood and all its palms trees. Well, Nicole loves those palm trees and Charlie loves to sit in a New York bar in the evening making warm chit-chat with his theater folks about how totally neat it is they’re all there on Broadway. Yes Virginia, there is a difference.
Johansson and Driver are already rattling 2020’s big film award cages. Many of their scenes are just so down-to-the-marrowly felt, as they act them out. Scarlett’s face and neck nearly turn scarlet in an angry exchange with Driver, each masterfully defending her or his wants and needs as the relationship slides into an irreversible tailspin.
Support is abundant in this only-on-Netflix film because of a splendid secondary cast; mainly with that of Laura Dern as Nicole’s feisty divorce lawyer and two other attorneys Charlie pulls into the fray who couldn’t be more dissimilar. And, who plays these guys? Alan Alda and Ray Liotta: a sharp-tongued Korean War surgeon with comedic tendencies … the other a menacing, but Good Fella.
Marriage Story isn’t an entertaining tale. It runs long; some of it maybe should’ve been dropped on the linoleum; other scenes shortened. Two sequences approach charming with Baumbach wanting you re-positioned to a feel-good spot; these scenes kept in for purposes of “just-how-talented-Scarlett-and-Adam-really-are-for-awards” bait. That’s when each has a separate scene doing a different song: Johansson with her character’s mom and sister … and Driver solo singing the very New Yorky ditty written by Stephen Sondheim titled “Being Alive.” Driver might want to think about signing with a record label. Not so sure about Scarlett, since her song was sung with benefit of a full trio. Oh, and I’ve forgotten what the song the script called Scarlett to sing along to. Yes, it wasn’t “Unforgettable.”
Young singles can use Baumbach’s “story” as an evening out for “cautionality,” if there is such a term. “Glowing” is one of the feelings a human has when he or she has fallen in love with another person. Marriage Story is a well done, heartfelt, stalking of what goes on between two former lovers who’ve fallen out of love, but still feel a love for one another. Figure that one out, if you’ve never experienced it. But, maybe the only way you’ll know… is having to live it. Take it from me, Noah Baumbach gives you a very good road map. Greta Gerwig must be proud of him.