As the streaming service competition gets exponentially more intense, with more and more platforms vying for our attention, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a perfect reminder why I only pay for Netflix. As many shows as Disney+ etc might have, it’s impossible to see them investing in real movies for grown ups like this one. A real jewel in the already pretty sparkly Netflix Film crown, Marriage Story is a sure-fire awards contender in every major category and one of the very best films of 2019. Just as funny as the very best of Baumbach, and possessed with a greater depth of feeling, it’s a fine-tuned masterwork.
After introducing us to married couple Nicole and Charlie Barber (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) in a swift, upbeat montage of their happiest times together, Baumbach throws us into the deep end of their divorce. Charlie’s selfishness has driven Nicole away, and she’s upped sticks to LA with their young son Henry to star in a TV sci-fi, leaving Charlie stewing and scrabbling for custody with his New York theatre company. One of Marriage Story’s great strengths from the very start is in its ability to effortlessly make you empathise with both its stars.
Charlie is self-absorbed and presumptive, always wanting relationships on his own terms, and you can see exactly why he drove Nicole away. Yet, it’s Nicole who escalates the situation by breaking their ‘no lawyers’ agreement and hiring the hawkish Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern on particularly glamorous form) to represent her, demanding full custody and huge financial burdens. Even the editing and Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is as even-handed as the script, which is in part inspired by Baumbach’s own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh. In not taking sides, Marriage Story invites you to care deeply for both Nicole and Charlie, not to mention Henry’s wellbeing as the separation becomes more toxic.
Every word of the script is carefully considered, so detail-oriented that the details become invisible, all working together to create a world that is fully alive and potent with possibility. It’s piercingly well-observed, from the diplomatic and still somewhat loving relationship Nicole and Charlie display when in Henry’s presence to screaming rows in which the pair of them choke on and stumble over the most disgusting, unforgivable insults. It’s some the most razor sharp writing of Baumbach’s career, giving you a deep and immediate investment in this couple.
It’s also extraordinarily funny, the only other film this year that can contend with Booksmart on the comedy front. Jokes fly thick and fast throughout, with two classic full house Baumbach set-pieces that will leave you struggling to breathe. The first is a farcical attempt by Nicole’s family to serve Charlie his divorce papers, a hysterical sequence that is absolutely owned by Merritt Wever as Nicole’s sister Cassie. There’s also the hilarious detail of Nicole’s mum being absolutely in love with Charlie and trying to salvage that son-in-law relationship from the jaws of her own daughter’s divorce.
Second is Charlie totally collapsing in the face of a court-supervised dinner with Henry, which will have you recoiling in horror in between gales of laughter as everything that could possibly go wrong does. Baumbach expertly uses Driver’s enormous frame for maximum cringe and comic effect, always looming or stumbling at the worst possible moment. Such a magnificent script needs similarly magnificent actors to do it justice, and Driver and Johansson match it every step of the way. Johansson has never been better than she is here, sinking her teeth into every inch of the sadness, anger, and playful silliness of the role and Driver is just sensational, further proving his status as one of the world’s very best actors. Come Oscar time, they’d both be very, very deserving winners.
Sheer quality in every aspect, Marriage Story is one of the most satisfyingly well-made films you could hope to see this year. While you don’t exactly need to see it on a giant screen, make sure you have company if you watch it at home. It’s a joyous comedy and devastating drama best experienced with as large a crowd as possible, with whom you can laugh along and share the feelings. It might be about a breakup, but with its kindness, fairness, and humour, Marriage Story is a film to bring people together.