Rating: 4 of 5
It’s January, meaning we’re fast approaching this year’s edition of the Academy Awards. The award season is often full of controversy and the Academy is certainly an imperfect institution. It’s not uncommon for them to present award nominees that can range from confusing to disappointing, particularly when big categories inevitably leave out worthy contenders or pick movies that don’t seem especially interesting. But not all is necessarily lost. A number of incredible movies are up for Best Picture, like the Korean thriller “Parasite” which received six nominations in total, as well as Greta Gerwig’s moving rendition of “Little Women,” also with six nominations. And with six being the apparent lucky number, Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” received six nominations as well.
“Marriage Story” is the thirteenth full-length film that Baumbach has directed and tells the story of a couple, Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johannson) and Charlie Barber (Adam Driver), as they go through the process of a divorce. The plot is direct and we see them communicate amicably at the beginning, grow tense and angry as the divorce becomes real and ultimately reach a deeper understanding of themselves as the dust of the separation settles.
If you’re entering this movie expecting it to be standard as far as drama movies go, be prepared to be pleasantly surprised, as it may prove much more gripping than expected. Horror movies and thrillers provide stress and excitement in the movie theater, but something about watching these divorce proceedings take place before you is a physically exhausting watch.
Charlie and Nicole own and work in a theater company together, and when they decide to get a divorce, they consistently say that they want things to be easy, with “no lawyers.” But they eventually both sign hefty checks for legal representation, and in their naivete are forced to realize that there is nothing “easy” about what they are trying to do in separating. While the lawyers appear to almost encourage them to treat each other as an opponent, it really feels like they are being forced to enter arguments that they never seemed to have and instead avoided while they were together.
“Marriage Story” succeeds in large part due to the construction of Nicole and Charlie as characters as well as the actors that bring them to life. While their divorce is not easy, it is also strangely not hard. The process works, then it doesn’t. They say they wanted an easy divorce, but inevitably find themselves in aggressive conflict, Driver and Johannson delivering intense scenes of yelling and screaming. These contradictions feel like they represent the hardest part of divorce: attempting to be without someone you were with for so long. Moments of love pepper Nicole and Charlie’s divorce, as she still cuts his hair and they spend family holidays together.
The characters are complicated and the actors do a compelling job of making the characters feel so average and flawed. The ending is a little neat and tidy but, just as the divorce is the hardest part of separating, it is the most exciting part of the film, kind of like watching a car accident, except no one gets hurt and instead, everyone moves to West Hollywood.