Divorce is a messy and troublesome concept that families across the world are increasingly considering a last resort for the continued civility of their relationships. At least that’s how Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) see it, a problematic but necessary burden that will weigh on their 8-year-old son Henry (Azhy Roberston) – but probably end up as the best for all involved.
The lawyers don’t quite see it that way. Los Angeles hotshot attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern, quite wonderfully), Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) and Jay (Ray Liotta) warn the waning couple that the proceedings will take a heavy toll on their sanity, but ultimately facilitate that exact process. It’s messy, and it gets troublesome.
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Baumbach wisely doesn’t put all the blame on the lawyers, although Marriage Story does have a more judicial feel than his other work even where it has dealt with broadly similar concepts. We’re not expecting a sci-fi adventure from Baumbach at this point; New York City playwright divorcees going through the rough and tumble of being middle aged seems exactly where his artistic senses would take him, and with Johansson and Driver he finally seems to have found the perfect, if implausibly attractive, couple of actors to take that on.
A typically wonderful score from Randy Newman and a small but shrewd part for Wallace Shawn intentionally or otherwise lend Marriage Story something of a Pixar feel, especially toward the latter stages, counterbalancing meaningful themes on human conflict and inadequacy with the profoundly American mantra that it’ll all be okay in the end, regardless of where things land. That light touch is important in a story that often takes a toll on its characters and the audience. If it wasn’t frequently funny, sometimes inappropriately so, it wouldn’t feel like a film from Noah Baumbach.
Thankfully it does. Johansson is highly effective and it appears an inevitable nominee for at least some of the great work she has done of late, which also includes a highlight performance in the otherwise misfiring Jojo Rabbit. Driver, meanwhile, is characteristically reliable and intelligent, ticking off yet another effective 2019 film with his name at the top of the poster. Having worked with almost every great living director – Eastwood, Spielberg, Coens, Jarmusch, Scorsese, Soderbergh, Spike, Gilliam, Abrams and Rian Johnson to name only three-quarters – it’s hard to see where Driver’s career goes uphill from here. I’m sure he’ll find a way.