For the first time in almost three years I decided to forgo the movie theater for a weekend and focus on a different offering, a new Netflix film that has been on my radar for almost four months called “Marriage Story”. Released to a limited number of theaters in November, “Marriage Story” finally debut on the streaming service this past weekend but despite many calling it one of the best films of the year it has taken a back seat to Netflix’s other recent release, “The Irishman”. Focusing on a couple, played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who are going through a divorce and the messy outside influences that turn their once-civil separation into an interpersonal war “Marriage Story” attempts to not only capture the subtle emotional depths of separation but also how divorce has become somewhat of a business for those taking advantage of lost love. Is it really as good as critics have promised? Well November and December have already seen me offer up numerous five-star reviews. Let’s see if this is one more. This is my review of “Marriage Story”.
Directed by Noah Baumbach who directed one of 2017’s best films “The Meyerowitz Stories” which just happened to also be a Netflix film, “Marriage Story” pulls few punches in trying to provide commentary on not only the very human elements of a separation but also how divorce has evolved into a messy business often utilized as a form of profit for legal representatives. But let’s start from the beginning because “Marriage Story” draws you right in with one of the best openings of 2019. We’re first introduced to Adam Driver’s Charlie and Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole when each of them reads letters they wrote describing what they love about the other person. It’s a touching, sincere moment that delves into what makes these two people perfect for each other but when we all of a sudden learn the couple is in marriage counseling and the letters were written as the first step to their separation it sets the tone for the entire movie. We’re brilliantly presented with a seemingly perfect relationship only to have it shattered right before our eyes, setting the stage by revealing to us that these two people do get along, they do have a lot in common, and they do care about each other, but they’re just not in love like they once were. The rest of the film is built from this moment showing the deterioration of the marriage until its inevitable conclusion. It’s an amazing and heartbreaking way to set things up and a solemn reminder that even perfect relationships often splinter so right away we’re made to feel like this could be absolutely anyone we know, no matter how perfect they’re world may seem.
What I really liked about this movie is how human everything felt. Yeah there’s some built in drama to the add some spice to the story and the fact that these are two beautiful people much better off than the average couple can make it a bit difficult to relate to their own personal plights, but I really cared about these two and the film takes great care to try and prevent you from siding with either of the main characters instead showing both to have their major flaws and redeemable qualities. They’re both good people who have, at times, made bad decisions. They’re selfish and single minded, but they’re also loving and compassionate and care about each other even in the midst of a divorce. Driver and Johannsson are a spectacular duo with great chemistry who completely own their characters and roles adding plenty of depth and personality and complimenting each other the way a real-life couple should. This story and the characters are done so well I found myself looking back at a relationship of my own past while watching the movie and comparing how that relationship fell apart. I was shocked by how much of this film’s narrative could be applied to not only my own breakup but other relationships I’ve seen fall apart over the years and the emotional toll that such a devastating turn of events can create for everyone involved. “Marriage Story” creates an eye-opening snapshot of most of, if not all the intricate details and events that play a role in a shattered marriage but it does so with a tremendous amount of compassion, tact and understanding in a way few films have ever attempted to do before.
Possibly its most eye-opening message though is how divorce has become ingrained in the American culture. A fascinating element of this story is how there really is no villain or bad guy for us to hate, but there are people who are clearly more focused on their own goals rather than solving the divorce amicably and peacefully. During the film the two main characters each lawyer up, Nicole at the insistence of a friend and Charlie simply to avoid losing everything to Nicole in the proceedings. The lawyers are played by a fully committed Laura Dern and Ray Liotta who each overwhelm their respective clients by telling them what they can get them and the risks associated with taking it too easy. The divorce becomes a war between the lawyers to get their clients the most from the separation. The lawyers are clearly more interested in their track record and adding to their resumes rather than allowing this couple to solve things peacefully while Nicole and Charlie, who originally wanted to separate on their own terms, decide to simply let the lawyers handle things. It’s the lawyers that do the trash talk, that expose the negatives of each person’s personalities, that make this divorce a nasty affair, not the couple. The couple are civil with each other and, most of the time, even still friends. Yet the lawyers aren’t in the wrong. They’re doing what they were hired to do. It’s they’re job. What “Marriage Story” presents here is a great look at how we, as a society, have turned the tragedy of divorce into something even more vile and destructive, a war between people who probably still respect each other but whose lives are going in different directions. What once was a relationship built on trust is devolved into a war of principles and fear of losing anything to the other person. It’s a sad truth that exposes a tragic reality of our world today.
There’s so much more that helps sell this story too, including the great use of music and Baumbach’s great attention to balancing each side of the narrative. We get some great insight into how both of the individuals are handling the divorce especially with a young son involved in the proceedings. Some of the best moments come from Adam Driver’s character Charlie who many divorced fathers will probably relate to quite heavily as he definitely has the tougher road to trek in trying to maintain some custody of his son. Once again though neither side of the story is meant to make us root for either party to come out on top. We see just as much Johansson’s character Nicole’s struggles to try and do what’s right for her and her child without vilifying Charlie. Never once does it feel like she genuinely hates him and many times she shows compassion for his plight even knowing she’s the one causing it. The music used in the background also create a great atmosphere. This is one of the few non-musical movies where I can honestly say the music choices were a significant part of the overall experience as they are often subtly hidden within the scene but serve as perfect compliments to the emotions of the moments. There were times when silence would all of a sudden turn into an overture and I didn’t even notice when the transition was made but I knew that it complimented the moment. It just felt like every detail built in to this movie was done with so much care and precision to drive home the emotional core of a very difficult story to watch and it made for a spectacular and frankly emotionally exhausting viewing experience and I enjoyed every minute.
I know a lot of people have been gushing over “The Irishman” and it’s possible that movie could become Netflix’s big award season contender, but the true great Netflix original of 2019 is “Marriage Story”. This is one of the year’s most human and carefully crafted movies in my opinion with everything from the acting and script to the use of music and the balance of the narrative carefully presented to give us a relatable narrative like few films before it could ever hope to accomplish. While there are some elements that could be seen as a bit overdramatic, “Marriage Story” is still a very powerful viewing experience that offers great insight into the culture of divorce as well as the torture that both sides go through to end a once-perfect union. There’s so much heart behind the tragedy and so much sincerity behind the pain that it almost made me smile seeing a film that understands the aspect of love and lost love beyond the Hollywood flair. There have been a lot of great, very human films in 2019 and “Marriage Story” is one of the best. See it for yourself and bring a few tissues because this is no breakup for the faint of heart.