Arts movie review

‘Marriage Story’ is beautifully heartbreaking

A film that will slowly rip your heart apart in all the best ways

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Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson star as Nora Fanshaw and Nicole Barber, respectively, in 'Marriage Story.'
Wilson Webb

Marriage Story
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Screenplay by Noah Baumbach
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda
Streaming on Netflix Dec. 6

What I love about Marriage Story: it’s a film that will slowly rip your heart apart in all the best ways. It will make you laugh and cry and everything in between. It is simultaneously a love story and a bitter separation. Director Noah Baumbach is completely unapologetic as he tears down what was once a picturesque marriage. 

It’s always been Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). Charlie and Nicole Barber are a New York-based family. They have an adorable son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Charlie is a big-name theater director, and Nicole is a rising Hollywood actress who stars in his plays. Charlie’s play is transferring to Broadway, and Nicole is transferring to Los Angeles to star in a pilot. Nicole files for divorce. And suddenly, it’s no longer just Charlie and Nicole despite their best efforts to keep it between themselves. It’s Charlie and Nicole — and also Nicole’s lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) and Charlie’s first and second lawyers Bert (Alan Alda) and Jay (Ray Liotta), respectively, and everyone who has been involved in some part of their lives as a couple. 

Divorce is ugly. Like Nicole says in the film: “It’s not as simple as not being in love anymore.” There are costs — both monetary and emotional, and the film gives an excellent albeit painful portrayal of those costs. Charlie and Nicole initially agreed to resolve the divorce between themselves, but once Nicole heeds the advice of a Hollywood friend, she lawyers up with cutthroat divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw. Now, the Barbers are an LA-based family, and Charlie is the inconsiderate husband and workaholic father. And it’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking to watch Charlie flounder in a foreign city, doing everything he can to not lose everything he has. It’s excruciating to watch the former couple exploit every little past phrase or action and mutate it into an unfavorable characteristic. To see Charlie and Nicole at the beginning of their relationship and then to see them at the end is to see two people lose themselves to the ravenous jaws of divorce. It is “death without a body.”

It would be easier to accept if there were a “bad guy” in the situation, but there isn’t. Everyone is just doing what they believe to be the best course of action given the circumstances. For Charlie and Nicole, they’re doing what they believe is best for Henry. For their lawyers, they’re doing what they believe is best for their clients. But somewhere along the away, doing what is considered best for all parties involved transforms into a game that everyone is fighting to win whether they know it or not. And in the middle of that game is Henry, still a child, whose biggest concern in life is not that his parents are separating but that he’s gone trick-or-treating for too long and needs to go to bed. Both Charlie and Nicole are fighting to be seen as the better parent and by doing so, they are unintentionally fighting to make the other seem like the unfit parent. From the emotional strain to the draining bank accounts, there is no winning this game.

However, Charlie and Nicole’s divorce paints a very privileged view of the whole process. And that is made clear during the court scene where the judge points out the multitudes of other ex-couples who do not have the resources to have their lawyers battle it out for another hour or so. And indeed, not every parent going through divorce has the money to fly back and forth across the country every other week to see their kid. Not every parent has the money to rent an apartment in Los Angeles to be closer to their kid. Not every parent has the money to afford lawyers that are going to fight for them. By removing these factors, the film becomes less relatable to the general public but focuses much more on the visceral emotional intensity, making it easier to tell the story.

At its core however, Marriage Story is more than a story about a sordid divorce. It is about two people who complemented each other throughout a certain duration of their lives until they grew out of each other. Charlie needed Nicole to bring his plays alive and Nicole needed Charlie to feel alive again even if she was just “feeding his aliveness.” Making Charlie and Nicole a director-actor couple infuses a stronger meaning into the narrative. Charlie Barber, recipient of the MacArthur Genius grant and critically acclaimed theater director, has been in control all of his life because he is the director. He’s always known what he wants and how he wants it. Nicole Barber, on the other hand, is his leading lady. She could have stayed in Hollywood after a breakthrough film role, but instead chose to stay with Charlie in New York. He directed, she listened, and they worked. But then the roles become reversed once Nicole files for divorce, and she becomes the one calling all the shots. 

As somber as the story is by itself, the absolutely stellar performances from the two leads is what really cements the film as one of the greats. Driver and Johansson deliver incredibly raw and powerful performances, truly capturing the sheer grief and pain that results from a separation. They are exemplary in every single scene and captivating with every line of dialogue. There are no theatrics, no CGI, no special effects, or anything of the sort. It is simply two actors and a camera, and it’s magical. The supporting cast is nothing short of phenomenal either. Everyone absorbed their role, and it was like watching an actual divorce unfold. All the characters were so real, you can’t help but sympathize with them.

From beginning to end, Marriage Story is an exquisite film. Baumbach splendidly crafts a captivating narrative that is sure to pull at your heartstrings. This film is an absolute must-see and tissues are an absolute must-have. And if that doesn’t convince you to see it, I leave you with this: Kylo Ren and Black Widow get a divorce.