In Sam Mendes’ 2009 adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel ‘Revolutionary Road’, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet played Frank and April, a married couple no more in love with each other and constantly in the process of inflicting suffering. At one moment, Frank screams at her saying she would like her to be dead but wouldn’t waste the energy that required to kill her. In Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, ten years later, a similar heated argument occurs. Charlie (Adam Driver) wishes Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) would just die. And then, the moment hits. Charlie covers his face with his hands and bursts out crying. With all his pent-up anger extracted out of him, he is unable to hold up and buries his face to the ground. Nicole comes closer and strokes his hair, apologizing.
Although both the movies are different in their own sense of time and place, Marriage Story manages to manoeuvre more. Baumbach’s movies have a constant theme of a marriage in its completely unmediated form, and in Marriage Story, he has finally found his best shot yet. Right from the opening shots when both the characters are introduced in tender, even terms, Baumbach makes them real and likeable. He is a “genius” theater-director in New York, she the longtime leading lady in his works. She seems to promote his genius but as a result, begins to fall short under the shadow of Charlie’s influence. She misses her hometown LA and wishes to go back, but nothing really changes. Clearly, its not just love that keep them afloat.
Enter the lawyers. Laura Dern plays Nora, a bossy yet seductively casual divorce lawyer who is hired by Nicole (who hires the lawyer first is an interesting negotiation that the entirety of the procedure depends on) who unarguably gets the best lines from the film. Ray Liotta hilariously counterparts her as Jay, and both these formidable counterparts turn the custody to a nasty and brutal attack, churning out their past narrative, in turns disintegrating the relationship to an even lower level. When Charlie and Nicole do come together without anyone to represent them, it documents into one of the most moving cinematic moments of this year. She still can’t get over the habit of addressing him as “Honey”, and he constantly frets around the house, pretending to avoid a confrontation as much as he can, until it breaks out. Driver and Johansson are two different actors; Johansson is the one who approaches every dialogue with a sense of her body- notice her hands after Driver breaks down, while Driver’s is the more perceptive performance- every single word he utters deflects it back from him. Together, they are in top-form, churning out two of the best performances of the year.
Baumbach has stated that Marriage Story is inspired from his three-year long strenuous divorce procedure from actress Jennifer Jason-Leigh. But to consider Marriage Story autobiographical would be reductive, for it is as much about divorce as it is about love, embracing every single character with empathy and grace. Robbie Ryan’s brilliant use of space in the room with his lens makes them appear as trapped in interiors. There’s a long scene that is in turns funny-tragic, involving the “serving” of divorce papers, which plays out brilliantly due to the sharp editing by Jennifer Lame. Unassumingly romantic, Randy Newman’s background score deserves special recognition.
Baumbach manages to find the eccentricity in the most tense of situations- notice how the scene between Charlie and the social worker hilariously escalates into spilling of literal bloodshed or the lunch break between the strict discussion of custody enforcement turns out to be a farce. Marriage Story never judges these two characters for what they do in order to survive, and stays afloat in their inconsistencies and bleak moments. While watching it, you might not even feel anything new, because that is how Nicole and Charlie are: real and living- and yet by the end of it there is a supreme feeling for these flawed characters. When Charlie croons a Stephen Sondheim song at the latter half of the film, the result is one that makes Marriage Story one of the best movie experiences of the year.