Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson Call it Quits in Netflix Divorce Drama
DIRECTED BY NOAH BAUMBACH/2019
Whoa is filmmaker Noah Baumbach, having survived a messy divorce.
Also, a few years ago, his marriage ended.
If there’s any silver lining whatsoever to such things, it’s manifested in his powerful and personal new film, Marriage Story. Produced by Netflix, Marriage Story finds itself on a slightly more desirable trajectory than Baumbach’s previous, The Meyerowitz Stories, a competent star-filled outing that was also a Netflix project. That film, in spite of its quality and high caliber, found itself unceremoniously dumped into the immediate netherworld of the streaming service’s daunting list of never-ending options. With this, Baumbach- heretofore a rising and respected filmmaker of the “mini-major” indie-film mold- divorced the traditional theatrical release model.
While the complete and utter lack of any kind of respectable big screen run proved jarringly telling of Netflix’s true methods at the time (hence the term “messy“ for this “divorce“), the specifics of this particular line item are looking a whole lot more favorable this time around. For at least one week, in select theaters, Baumbach’s Marriage Story enjoys a cinematic run. Then, on December 6, it will be available to stream via you-know-where.
So, with all of that hashed out, the logical question is, is Marriage Story worth seeking out on the big screen? There are definitely two sides to this. Baumbach, obviously anticipating the inevitable comparisons to another two-hander divorce drama that was essentially made for television- that being Ingmar Bergman’s instantly seminal Scenes from a Marriage– does the smart film-buff thing, and fully leans into the similarities.
When Scenes from a Marriage came out in 1973, it proved to be Bergman’s biggest hit both on television in Sweden and theatrically stateside. This success is due to the director’s approach in letting his truly magnificent actors carry the film; his usual high-end visuals taking a rudimentary backseat. Such is the case with Marriage Story. The performances of leads Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are electric, without question occupying the same rarified realm of Scene’s Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Watching them navigate this personal material on an uninterrupted large scale is its own reward.
Like Bergman before him, though, Baumbach has a tendency here to favor one party a wee bit more than the other. As much as Bergman favored the character played Ullmann (his own ex), Baumbach ever so slightly favors Driver’s character. It’d be problematic were the whole thing not executed with such care, such precision. As good as Scarlett Johansson is in this picture, (and she is very, very good), she is overshadowed by Adam Driver, both physically and otherwise, who’s arguably having a grander movie year than she is. (It’s his The Dead Don’t Die/The Report/Marriage Story/Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker to her Avengers: Endgame/Jojo Rabbit/Marriage Story. You make the call).
Driver and Johansson begin as a buzz-worthy couple on the rise on the New York Theater scene, Charlie and Nicole. He’s a lauded director whom she’s cast aside a burgeoning TV/film acting career to stick with on the stage. But, once she lands a part on a science fiction television series, things go south for their union, with her going west more and more often. Things fall apart, despite that fact that neither is a bad person, per se. Baumbach’s presumed favoritism sets in as Nicole begins ratcheting up the ante of the agreed-to divorce, getting lawyers involved and filing in California, forcing him to fly out there all the time. Charlie exists in a place place of prolonged, wounded damage. As for Nicole, she’s working from a place of protection and pronounced adjustment. Together and apart, they will go on living within and without one another.
Baumbach’s dissolution of the beautiful does exceed Bergman’s in at least one crucial place: its depiction of its effect upon children involved. Or in this specific case, just one child, young Henry. Whereas Scene from a Marriage gave lip service to the fact that its hero couple have kids, and yes, that complicates things, Bergman (per his own life’s behavior) was unable to engage this reality in any way. In stark contrast, the fate of Henry amid this breakup is forefront. Both parents love him and want custody, a battle that ironically depletes them to the point of exhaustion in terms of their actual involvement with him. One of the saddest things about Marriage Story is to witness the bratifying of Henry. The kid becomes a pawn and the castle all at the same time. His reaction to the fresh jolts and jerks in his life go a long way in making him a deteriorating screen presence; harsh, demanding, and awful. An honest depiction of an upset kid.
What was initially a straightforward arbitration inexplicably (from his- and our- perspectives) quickly comes to involve his & hers lawyers. They are played respectively and memorably by Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Laura Dern- who’s character is, simply put, gloriously west-coast-insufferable. Look for some if not all of them on the 2019-2020 film awards circuit.
In the grand scheme of things, their custody battle is just another custody battle, another drop in a poisoned ocean. And yet, this is everything. As far as marriage stories go, Baumbach has chosen to skip to the very end of this one, as, quite clearly from his point of view in making this, this final chapter is what defines that story. The twist is, that in this darkest moment of a supposedly beautiful thing supposedly dying, a grace note or two just might just be streaming forth.