Review: Marriage Story

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson, and Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Marriage Story features brilliant performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. The film explores the American way of divorce and how it damages a couple who want to be good parents and friends when it’s over.

This is a sad story, know that going in. It’s painful to witness. However, it’s ultimately full of hope. There are a few spoilers in my review.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a theater director in New York City. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) had a promising career in Hollywood, but is slowly disappearing in New York under the umbrella of motherhood and Charlie’s growing fame. They have a son Henry (Azhy Robertson) they both cherish. Both of them are good parents.

Marriage Story opens with monologues from Charlie and Nicole reading letters they wrote about why they married each other. A montage of scenes from their marriage played as these were read. They were an assignment from the mediator who was helping them separate, but it backfired when Nicole refused to read hers to Charlie.

Instead, she packed up Henry and went home to her family in California. She got a part in a TV series. She was staying in LA.

I thought the film tried to be a bit of everything – comedy, hard-hitting drama, musical performances. It fit together, but only because it felt so real.

When Nicole first got home, the scenes with her mom, Sandra (Julie Hagerty), and her sister Cassie (Merritt Wever) were straight up comedy. Even the funny bits were part of the overall motif of the film about how a divorce puts families through an emotional roller coaster ride.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story
You’ve been served

In California, Nicole gave Charlie the divorce papers and hired a lawyer. Nora (Laura Dern) played her lawyer. She had a small part but she made it outstanding.

Getting lawyers into the situation escalated all the problems and costs.

Adam first went to Jay (Ray Liotta) to represent him. He didn’t like the cutthroat attitude or the upfront cost, so he found and hired Bert (Alan Alda). Bert was worn down by divorces himself and full of contradictory advice. When Charlie realized what kind of lawyer Nora was, and what he was up against, he went back to Jay.

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story
This image is a masterpiece by itself.

The court room scene with the lawyers fighting each other was brutal. After this bruising battle, Nicole and Charlie had a sprawling, vicious, verbal face off in his apartment. You see a bit of it in the tweet below.

According to the trivia information about the film, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson did 50 takes of the fight scene. It took two days to film. The scene was done in one take, and the pair had to redo the entire scene for every new take. That sounds excessive to me. What was wrong with the 4th take, or the 11th take? Did the two actors have to be emotionally overwrought and exhausted by what they were asked to do to get a good performance? Did Adam Driver really have to knock a hole in the wall 50 times?

What writer and director Noah Baumbach got from the two actors after 50 takes was a performance that will get them a number of best acting award nominations. The scene feels very theatrical to me, but let’s remember that both of the characters in the film are actors/artists and therefore theatrical.

The fight cleared the air. Very quickly, the final agreements appeared. They were sane and protected both their relationships with their son.

The film is a reflection of the real divorce between writer and director Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh. There are parts of the story specific to that divorce. The two Stephen Sondheim songs at the end are examples of this. Charlie sings a touching version of “Being Alive.” Nicole sings a much cheerier song with her mom and sister, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”

Despite my quibbling about the way the director got the fight scene he wanted, the direction of Marriage Story was beautiful. The many close-ups of the actors were powerful and strong and one of the best features of the film. Giving the entire lens to Laura Dern for her big feminist rant was genius. Scarlett Johansson gave the best performance I’ve seen her give.

Poster for marriage story

Here’s the trailer. The film is a Netflix original.

Have you seen the film yet? What did you think of it?

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