“Marriage Story” opens with one of the most romantic scenes in recent movie memory, as spouses Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) list things they love about each other as we see scenes of domestic bliss. It’s a knockout of an opener, especially because we soon realize this genuine, funny and moving film is about this couple’s divorce.
That’s no spoiler because writer-director Noah Baumbach immediately reveals these lists are part of an exercise during a divorce mediation. Charlie is a New York theater director who has quite the reputation. Nicole acts in her husband’s theater company, having given up a potential career as a movie star following a breakthrough role shortly before she met Charlie. The film follows this couple as they go through the ringer that is divorce proceedings.
A key to this story working as well as it does is the lead performances, which are outstanding. Driver gives the best performance of the year. He is totally natural in the role and brings an emotional truth that is deep and resonant, so much so that even the slightest facial expressions convey volumes. He also nails a brief scene where he sings.
Johansson is also doing what may be the best work of her career. She makes the audience sympathize with her character but does not shrink from portraying Nicole’s flaws. She is open, vulnerable and authentic in a way that audiences rarely see from this movie star.
Baumbach clearly knew what gems he had in these performances, as many of his visual decisions help showcase Driver and Johansson’s work. Baumbach deploys close-ups perfectly to provide viewers with an almost subconscious intimacy with Charlie and Nicole. Similarly, he uses long takes that make every discussion feel more immediate and tense.
Baumbach also frames Driver and Johansson to almost imperceptibly underscore their separation. At least twice in the film, he shoots these actors in an individual shot with plenty of empty space longing to be filled before cutting to a shot of them on opposite ends of the screen. That physical distance conveys the emotional distance of these characters.
That visual storytelling only helps what is one of the best screenplays of the year. Known for his acerbic and bitter movies, Baumbach here delivers a human, well-observed, compassionate and relatable picture built on the foundation of those incredible opening montages, which get moviegoers invested in these characters right away. Every emotion on display, every narrative beat, every plot development and every character feels devastatingly real and honest. Aided by Randy Newman’s quietly affecting score, this is an immensely moving picture.
But it is not a joyless movie because Baumbach also provides plenty of humor that works as well as it does for the exact same reason the drama does: it feels authentic. An early scene that centers on serving divorce papers, for example, turns into a farcical tour de force precisely because we can see these people behaving in this way. That comedy provides just another enjoyable element to a film that is already abundantly rich.
The only knock I have against “Marriage Story” is it feels like Johansson’s character gets a bit lost in the second half of the movie. Baumbach structures the film to show both Charlie and Nicole’s side of things, but it seems clear that his sympathies lie with Charlie.
That might not be too surprising given that Baumbach himself is a New York director divorced from a movie actress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But precisely because the scenes with Nicole are so effective in the first hour or so, we acutely feel when her character gets sidelined.
That hardly takes away from the cumulative effect of this masterpiece, a Netflix film available today. “Marriage Story” is among the very best movies of 2019. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.
“Marriage Story” stars Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Meritt Wever, Julie Hagerty, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and Azhy Robertson. It is rated R for language throughout and sexual references and runs 2 hours and 16 minutes.