“Marriage Story” is not a first date movie. It is a three hankie, emotionally fraught movie about appealing but damaged people whose divorce is filled with a sense of loss and a growing shroud of incivility.
Adam Driver is Charlie, a hotshot avant-garde theatre director living and working in Brooklyn, New York with his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). She is a former movie star with a list of teen comedies to her credit. They met at a party, instantly fell in love, had son Henry (Azhy Robertson) all was well until it wasn’t. Charlie may have slept with a stage manager but it’s Nicole’s growing dissatisfaction that widen the chasm between them. “I never really came alive for myself,” she says. “I was only feeding his aliveness.”
What begins as a simple conscious uncoupling becomes complicated when Nicole accepts a starring role on a television series based in Los Angeles, taking Henry to live with her. The family, stretched between two coasts and two careers, wears thin and soon the pressures of the split take their toll. “It’s not as simple as not being in love anymore,” says Nicole.
On my way into the press screening for “Marriage Story” a publicist handed me a small package of Kleenex branded with the movie’s logo. “I won’t need these,” I thought. “I’m a professional, here to dispassionately judge this film on its merits. I made it through ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ like a dry-eyed superman and if I can do that, I can do anything.” I’m not too proud to tell you that I was glad I had the Kleenexes. “Marriage Story” is so agonizingly vivid, so without melodrama, that I felt at times as though I was a voyeur, that I shouldn’t be watching some of these emotionally charged scenes. As Charlie and Nicole drift apart and lawyers, like the ruthless Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern in full beast mode), become involved the idea that they might have a chance of staying friends once this is all said and done becomes heartbreakingly remote.
Driver and Johansson convincingly play the bond that made them a couple and as it unravels both reveal the fatal flaws that drove a wedge between them. The two actors, unshackled from the constraints of the blockbusters that pay for their Italian castle retreats, dig deep, wallowing in their character’s self-absorption and anger.
Johansson, in full monologue mode, thrills in a lengthy speech detailing her state of mind. And do not even get me started by Driver’s final scene with his son as he reads a long-forgotten note. (NO SPOILERS HERE) Director Noah Baumbach keeps those scenes—and the entire movie for that matter—uncluttered. Simple and direct, he allows the actors to do the heavy lifting with naturalistic performances and both pack a wallop.
“Marriage Story” may not be a great choice for a first date but the emotional, sincere truth Baumbach and cast wring out of the material is best seen with a companion, or at the very least a package of Kleenex.