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Review: ‘Marriage Story’ is a near-perfect look at love and heartbreak

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“Marriage Story” makes a worthy case for Netflix to win big at the Oscars this year. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Hell hath no fury like a streaming service scorned.

After breaking into the Oscars race with last year’s “Roma,” Netflix is back and focusing all its might on taking home the top prizes at this year’s Academy Awards.

In a year where the studio could potentially earn two Best Picture nominees and up to four Best Actor contenders, Noah Baumbach’s heart-wrenching family drama, “Marriage Story,” is leading the pack.

Starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story,” chronicles the deterioration of Charlie (Driver) and Nicole’s (Johansson) marriage and the ensuing escalation of the legal proceedings during the couple’s separation.

The greatest strength of “Marriage Story” is its authenticity. Rarely is a film able to portray its subject matter so accurately, but Baumbach can, and he starts right away.

“Marriage Story” opens with two montages, one focused on Charlie and the other on Nicole. While we see one go about their daily life and care for their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), the other adoringly explains the depths of their love for their partner. The whole time Randy Newman’s lovely score rolls, and it really makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Then, bam. It turns out, those love letters were the first step in the couple’s separation process. Like divorces often do in real life to those involved, the rug is pulled out from underneath the audience.

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Scarlett Johansson as Nicole and Adam Driver as Charlie in “Marriage Story.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Baumbach quickly demonstrates just how emotional his film will be, drawing viewers in and instantly making them care for his characters, only to promptly force them to pick a side.

Only, it’s not that easy – just as in real life, these things are incredibly complex. Both parties have done wrong; they’re each flawed, which results in lots of gray, instead of a clear black and white decision. Each time it seems as if the film might begin to favor one side of the dispute, the other does something to draw you back to their corner. Baumbach refuses to play favorites, presenting both Charlie and Nicole through equally favorable and critical lenses.

Although the couple initially agrees to keep things civil, opting not to use attorneys, things quickly escalate into all-out emotional and legal warfare. The next two hours are absolutely brutal.

Driver and Johansson are brilliant, running the full spectrum of emotions, from self-absorbed to compassionate, and providing both charming and heartbreaking performances. Each time Johansson is forced to reckon with a decision, you can see the nonstop push and pull occurring inside her head. Driver’s expressiveness is truly unmatched. If he wasn’t already cemented as one of the best actors in Hollywood today, he certainly is now.

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Laura Dern as Nora and Scarlett Johansson as Nicole in “Marriage Story.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

As astounding as the film’s two leads may be, its ensemble is just as impressive, particularly Laura Dern. Dern plays Nicole’s sweet-talking yet cutthroat attorney, Nora. Immediately, it’s clear how magnetic Nora is, and a large part of that is thanks to Dern, who brings her iconic “Big Little Lies” energy to the big screen. On the other side, Charlie’s eventually attorney, Jay, is an unsympathetic Ray Liotta. Nora and Jay appear to represent two different different approaches to divorce court, but underneath the gimmicks, it’s clear they want to win no matter the cost, unlike Charlie and Nicole who still care deeply about each other.

It may seem dramatic to call “Marriage Story” a rollercoaster of emotions, but in this case it’s extremely applicable. The film’s most startling scene, however, comes in its final act when after months of litigation, Nicole and Charlie attempt to talk things through. Instead of arriving at some miraculous resolution, or even just a sliver of common ground, the result is a vicious explosion of pain.

Driver and Johansson will tear your heart out with arguably the most painful, raw and realistic shouting match in recent film. The scripting here is genius, because unlike other films that may allow their actors, and audiences, a chance to come up for air, Baumbach never slows down. The couple spits venom for a few minutes straight, each drowning the other out with the first and most painful insult they can think of, until Driver is literally on his hands and knees bawling. It’s intense.

For a film as heavy as “Marriage Story,” it’s surprisingly hilarious. The rest of this review may not make it seem true, but there are quite a few laugh out loud moments throughout the film. Thank god Baumbach worked to balance things out, because without these brief respites from the heartbreak, “Marriage Story” might be too unbearable.

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Scarlett Johansson as Nicole, Azhy Robertson as Henry and Adam Driver as Charlie in “Marriage Story.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Technically speaking, “Marriage Story” is a masterpiece. Baumbach and cinematographer Robbie Ryan craft a beautiful piece of filmmaking. The visuals of the Los Angeles and New York settings and how each location perfectly represents their respective characters, show just how in control Baumbach is of the film. Whether it’s the  intensities of the shouting match or the intimacies of closing a gate or tying a shoe, every frame is perfect.

Underneath it all is Newman’s delicate, charming score, which feels more like his work in “Toy Story” than something belonging in a traumatizing divorce drama. However, it works beautifully to add a bit of whimsy into a film in dire need of happiness.

“Marriage Story” hurts, there’s no other way to put it. Just like a real-life divorce, it will put you through the wringer, and you’ll be emotionally drained when you come out the other side. But as upsetting as this tale of love and heartbreak may be, ultimately, there’s a sense of hope when it winds down, and that through it all, some love may last forever.

Star Rating: 5 out of 5

“Marriage Story” releases in limited theaters on Nov. 6 and is available to stream on Netflix beginning Dec. 6.

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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