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Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) cuts the hair of her almost ex-husband Charlie (Adam Driver) in Marriage Story. (Netflix/File)
Falling in love with someone is one of the most wonderfully miraculous feelings that human beings experience; but more often than not people also fall out of love.
This portrait of people falling out of love is not exactly uncommon anymore in films and television. Robert Brenton’s Kramer vs. Kramer, Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage are a few of the best films that explore this theme.
This year, it is Noah Baumbach’s best film to date, Marriage Story, which is loosely inspired by Baumbach’s own experience of divorcing actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013. However, Marriage Story is more than just a personal emblem but rather a universal portrait of how painful it is to experience the end of a relationship and the feeling of loss that comes with it. Almost anyone who has gone through a breakup, be it a marriage or a relationship, can relate to this film.
The film opens with the voice of Adam Driver’s Charlie, an acclaimed self-absorbed New York theater stage director, offering tender observations about what makes his wife, Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole, a talented actress and generous mother to their 8-year-old son, such a great human being and partner.
“What I love about Nicole,” he explains, “She’s a great dancer, infectious. She is a mother who plays, really plays.”
Then it’s followed by Nicole doing the same exact thing, telling us that Charlie loves being a dad, that it’s almost annoying how much he likes it.
The opening scene seems like a portrait of a perfect marriage story between two people who love and care about each other, until Noah Baumbach pulls the rug from under us and tells us otherwise. Those reminiscence of a warm household actually comes from a mediation process that a counselor assigns to both Charlie and Nicole so that their divorce process can begin and end on a civil, positive note. But those little glimpses of what was once a seemingly perfect marriage do not exist anymore. All that's left is memories, written onto two pieces of paper by people who now can't even sit side by side anymore.
Baumbach never pinpoints to the one thing that causes the divorce — maybe it’s Charlie’s affair with the stage manager, or maybe it is Nicole’s desire to rebuild his career in Los Angeles, or maybe it’s just a small thing happened outside the film that snowballs beyond the couple’s control.
By not letting us to know the exact reason why they end up having a divorce, Marriage Story works even better as an observation of the minutiae that hurt the most but has not been talked about as often in films. There are questions about custody, living arrangements and even bank accounts to support Baumbach’s arguments on how frustrating the legal process of divorce actually is.
While depicting the technical mess of the divorce, the movie never dismisses the humane part of it. In fact, Marriage Story brilliantly showcases how one’s intentions on keeping things as friendly as possible can be eroded once a legal process — represented by two sharp lawyers, Nora (Laura Dern, fabulous as ever) and Jay (Ray Liotta), who just want to win no matter what — enters the picture.
It’s through this cruel process that Marriage Story manages to envelop its argument on the way the divorce system may be fully designed to make people who were once in love, goes cold and detests each other, weaponizing their counterparts’ minor flaws then make a big deal out of it for the sake of benefiting their case.
Still, even when the film starts to wreck our hearts into pieces, Baumbach’s treatment remains very thoughtful and well-observed, with a sprinkle of his signature overlapping dialogues that are played for laughs.
The film also never forces us to choose sides between Charlie and Nicole. Instead, Baumbach handles the characters with a visceral level of nuance that allows them to be as real as possible, unveiling both of their flaws without once portraying them as the villain of the story.
Sure, Charlie’s self-absorbed behavior can sometimes make us want to go punch him, and Nicole’s coldness as she selfishly brings their son Henry to Los Angeles without ever planning to go back to their home in New York is unfair for Charlie. Even so, what Baumbach exposes are the imperfections that will ooze out of every individual under the same pressing circumstances as Charlie and Nicole.
Aside from Baumbach’s masterful storytelling approach, what ultimately lends the film much more complexity and depth is the performances from its universally talented ensemble. As Nicole, Johansson gives her best performance to date, displaying a ferocious charisma while at the same time displaying transparency of emotions beneath it. It is Driver, however, that provides the film some of its best moments, including the now-much talked-about performance of “Being Alive” – a song from Broadway’s classic Company.
If Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale is a misanthropic coming-of-age tale about the confusing impact that a parents’ divorce can give to the kids, Marriage Story is a mature, perfectly crafted divorce film from the perspectives of the adult, a point of view that he can only get after experiencing it himself.
Heartbreaking but never resorts to sentimentalism, Marriage Story will perforate your heart and leave you with an uneasy feeling of devastation when it ends. You’ll cry, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry some more. (dev/kes)
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