Marriage Story (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Scenes from a divorce

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Noah Baumbach’s latest film “Marriage Story”, which is released in South Korean theaters this week and will be available on Netflix on next Friday, is a sharp and intimate story about one difficult process of divorce. When its two main characters decide to end their marital relationship, they want to divorce as quickly and painlessly as possible, but they eventually find themselves in a long, bitter legal/emotional struggle, and the movie deftly alternates between drama and comedy while never losing its deep empathy toward both of its two main characters.

At the beginning, the movie shows Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) going through a mediation session not long after their decision on divorce. They respectively write about each other’s better sides, and the opening scene based on their respective writings convey to us how much they knew and liked each other during those happy years of their marriage, but then we also see how much they feel bitter and resentful now. While Charlie, who is a young promising theater director, has felt fine with living in New York City along with his wife and their young son, Nicole, who was a movie actress before marrying her husband and then performing for his theater company, has actually been quite unhappy with where her life and career have been going, so she recently decided to move to LA for restarting her career – and that was the beginning of how their married life started to crumble.

Anyway, both Nicole and Charlie want to terminate their marriage without any unnecessary headache, but then, not so surprisingly, both of them gradually come to consider taking more aggressive actions mainly due to the custody of their son. While Nicole wants to take their son to LA, Charlie is not particularly willing to accept that because he does not want to look bad to their son, though he does not know well what their son exactly wants. Once Nicole hires her divorce lawyer and then delivers an envelope containing legal documents to Charlie, Charlie belatedly comes to discern that things get really serious, so he looks for any good lawyer to represent him.

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As slowly accumulating emotional tension around Nicole and Charlie, the movie never hurries itself for generating considerable realism and intimacy around them and other substantial characters surrounding them. While Nicole’s mother and sister provide a considerable amount of comic moments, the movie also gives us several amusing scenes involved with Charlie’s theater company, and the lawyers respectively representing Nicole and Charlie are imbued with colorful personalities coupled with practical professionalism.

When their situation becomes more complicated than before later in the story, Nicole and Charlie come to confront how ugly and nasty divorce can be. While the lawyers representing them are surely ready to say anything to benefit their respective clients at the court, both Nicole and Charlie cannot help but feel guilty, but they also become more resentful to each other than before especially when they fight harder over the custody of their son, and there eventually comes a private moment when they spitefully and regretfully hurt each other’s feelings a lot.

However, the movie also often reminds us of how much they care about each other even at that point. I was particularly touched by a tender scene when Charlie comes to Nicole’s residence for taking care of a little problem involved with the front gate of her residence, and this and other warm, gentle moments in the film, which are usually accompanied with Randy Newman’s sensitive score, show us that there is still some emotional bond between them despite all the anger and resentment churning around them.

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As the two beating hearts of the film, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, both of whom will definitely be Oscar-nominated early in next year, are simply fabulous in their rich nuanced performance full of realistic human details. As shown from a number of various films ranging from “Lost in Translation” (2003) to “Under the Skin” (2013), Johansson is a versatile actress too talented to be remembered only for her thankless role in those popular Marvel Cinematic Universe flicks, and she is particularly terrific when cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s unflinching camera closely focuses on her character’s face during several key scenes in the film. On the opposite, Driver, a very distinctive actor who drew my attention for the first time with his Emmy-nominated supporting turn in HBO TV series “Girls” and then moved onto a diverse array of films ranging from “Paterson” (2016) to the recent Star Wars films, effectively complements Johansson whenever it is required, and I must tell you that their sublimely dynamic interaction on the screen took me back to what I observed from Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973).

The movie also allows its other main cast members to shine in each own spot. While Laura Dern, who may also be Oscar-nominated, is suitably no-nonsense as Nicole’s sympathetic lawyer, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta are equally engaging as two very different lawyers representing Charlie, and I was also delighted by the appearance of Wallace Shawn and Julie Hagerty in the film (Remember how funny and charming Hagerty was in “Airplane!” (1980)?).

Considering how well it is written, performed, and directed from the beginning to the end, “Marriage Story” is Baumbach’s best work since “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), and it is also indubitably one of the best films of this year. Sure, it is occasionally quite painful to watch, but we come to empathize a lot with its two main characters as getting to know them more, and that is why it is touching to see when they eventually arrive at a point where they come to understand and care about each other more than before. Yes, they move on separately now, but they do remember what they once had, and they will certainly do their best for what both of them care most.

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