Marriage Story review: Netflix delivers Noah Baumbach’s award-worthy drama that offers time to reflect

Marriage Story Cast
Monsters and Critics attended the NYC screening of Marriage Story with the cast Laura Dern, Adam Driver, and Alan Alda and the writer/director Noah Baumbach. Pic credit: Netflix

Several reviews already published of Netflix’s award-promising drama Marriage Story from Noah Baumbach herald this film as “devastating,” but this is an overreach.

Marriage Story review: Almost no spoilers

Unlike the 1979 weeper, Kramer Vs. Kramer, you will not need a box of tissues to get through this tale of conscious uncoupling, a modern term that softens the idea of the band-aid rip of emotions so prevalent last century.

If anything, the viewer will be instructed how to not cannibalize a child’s educational future or perhaps a retirement by legal proxy wars. It will also remind you that in the depths of a dissolution, sometimes there is no villain to hang the blame of a dying love on, it just happens over time.

This story is two things, primarily. It is both the realism that two hothouse flowers in a marriage cannot sustain each other’s dream, and when no one wants to step up to be the gardener to help that flower grow, it’s a dunner.

It is also a damning look at the lucrative family law and divorce industry in total, and how it can bankrupt the future resources of the child/children being bartered over by lawyers hell-bent on winning at any cost.

Divorce is very costly, and there’s a solid reason why many very wealthy people just conduct separate lives and forego the lawyer fiesta to preserve family inheritances and dynasties. Poorer people don’t have such a luxury, and our film’s protagonists, Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), fall in the middle. They are well off enough financially to live in the heart of New York and actually hire very expensive lawyers… yet not rich enough to fully absorb an elongated legal battle.

This past weekend, at a special screening in New York that Monsters & Critics participated in for the promotion of the film, writer and director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) said that he observed how his peers and pals’ own divorces unspooled to inform this modern divorce story.

In Marriage Story, the couple in question, Charlie and Nicole Barber, are terrific together, until they are not.

These high-achieving creative souls, who are both very talented and who each have a clear vision of their own path, are blind to the warning signs that their home life is under threat. Sadly, their breakup geographically is not conducive to an easy-peasy split.

Nicole is kind but oblivious in her own home. She is a good listener to strangers. But those she lives with? Nicole leaves a messy trail of destruction in her wake and is inconsiderate to the point of leaving cabinet doors open for people to hit themselves on and her shoes left about to trip upon.

Charlie is so in his own mind about his creative process, writing his plays, and how he is shaping his burgeoning theater company, that he often misses the subway stop he was aiming for. Despite this, he is clearly the adult in the home who makes sure things are orderly.

Even with these seemingly benign annoying differences, Baumbach is slow to reveal the reason for this otherwise, on paper, happy couple to fall away from each other emotionally.

Their son, Henry, is their tether and whose physical whereabouts — once their marriage is in free-fall — creates the most distress for his father, Charlie.

The separation thread pulls fast as the news comes that mom (Nicole) is heading to L.A. for a TV pilot, which, of course, turns into a series pick up. The obliviousness to all that and the fact that Nicole took their son to L.A. and what that means in an unraveling marriage is the engine created to show the beast of the film.

Enter three distinctly marvelous actors and performances that sum up Charlie and Nicole’s new reality: Laura Dern as Nora, Ray Liotta as Jay, and Alan Alda as Bert, the most sympathetic (still not cheap), pragmatic, and kind of the three valkyries of family law in Los Angeles.

Dern’s electric performance as Nora Fanshaw is flat-out Oscar-worthy. She delivers a mic-drop summation of the eternal double standard of how women are viewed by the courts… and in life.

Her experience working with director David Lynch certainly rubbed off on her, with her jarring, almost Lynchian physicality in scenes consulting with Nicole, that, at times, will remind you of a cunning praying mantis about to strike an unwary victim. She uses her body in subtly seductive ways to get what she wants and to win at all costs.

Liotta portrays Jay, a rapid-fire $950-an-hour pugilistic brawler — a natural-born litigator whose explosive nature and menacing eye lock will delight. Energetically, Liotta is just one of those actors who steals scenes and eats frames — he’s that powerful on camera.

Lastly, Alan Alda as Bert Spitz is the cherry of this trifecta of brilliant actors who just rips your heart out. It is his calmly delivered, “just the facts” leveling of the boom done with Alda’s civilized and calm approach to Charlie which is what was needed at the moment. Until the fight gets too unbearable for Charlie, who realizes that Bert is just a knife, and he’s in the middle of a blazing gunfight.

Baumbach’s writing reveals the mysterious whys of the divorce, the love that was there in the beginning, and what appeared to me was still there, somewhat, after all was said and done, as the mechanics of the Barber’s marriage grind to a halt.

He does us the kindness of clearly outlining why these two fated people were together in the first place. The narrative that he creates serves as a boomerang later in the film with a particularly emotional scene between Charlie and Henry, as observed by Nicole in the shadows. This is one of many Oscar award-worthy moments for both Johansson and Driver, each perfectly wrought for these roles.

Marriage Story is presented at an adult pace with a score by Randy Newman that will make you feel as though you may be watching a classic Woody Allen film from the 1970s, also thanks to the lensing talents of DP Robbie Ryan.

You won’t get over-the-top histrionics, but moments of great emotion and gut-wrenching conversations that are appropriately placed. This is a film that will allow you to reflect upon your own life if you have ever loved and lost in a relationship; married or not.

The pacing is languid, not a wham-bam action whipsaw. It’s a grown-up film and both the cities (warts and beauty marks) of New York and Los Angeles become quasi-characters in this tug of war over where a family wishes to call home.

The supporting cast is fantastic and also worth noting, as Merritt Wever (Unbelievable) is wonderful as Nicole’s sister Cassie. Julie Hagerty brings her patented fey and lilting energy as Nicole’s actor mother Sandra, who struggles with proper boundaries, and the special surprise of seeing Martha Kelly (Baskets) cast as a court evaluator assigned to assess Charlie and Henry in a normal situation.

This court-ordered exercise devolves into Charlie’s worst nightmare realized. Kelly is another actor who is a genius with the art of physically understated humor, combined with her laconic delivery and timing instincts.

Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride, Radio Days) rounds out a fabulous ensemble of ultra-talented side players.

The damning part of this film is the American divorce industry and how it maneuvers good people with good intentions against each other through fear and exaggerating each vulnerable person’s worst moments in order to win the field and pass the goal line.

And, like the casual throw pillow in Jay’s office that the camera lingers on, “Eat, Drink and Remarry,” this glib remark sums up Jay and Nora’s dispassionate view as to how they earn their living.

Bottom line: Marriage Story is not a film for everyone or every age.  It is an important and memorable film that is solidly cast with powerhouse actors and is a welcome adult dramatic film for these times. It should be recognized as such come awards time.

Marriage Story has a limited theatrical run (November 6 debut) before it begins streaming December 6 on Netflix.

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