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Marriage Story Movie Review: A not-so-engaging portrait of the end of a marriage; Scarlett Johansson- Cinema express

Marriage Story Movie Review: A somewhat interesting film about the divorce of an uninteresting couple

The performances are wonderful across the board. Johansson and Driver will doubtless receive nominations aplenty come awards season

Published: 08th December 2019

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story is really a divorce story. It's a look at the final days of the marriage of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). The former is a theatre director and his wife is an actor in his theatre company. Nicole, we find out, was famous for a teen film she starred in before she met Charlie. However, after meeting and marrying him, she's given up her career in cinema, moved to New York, and started performing in his plays. In the process, she has gradually lost her sense of self--something that's only all too common in relationships where one partner is more dominant. In Nicole's own words, "Charlie is very clear about what he wants" while she is always unsure. And so, though she wants to move back to her hometown of Los Angeles (her mother is a former TV star, and she and Nicole's sister still live there), she is unable to convince Charlie to do so. 

Director: Noah Baumbach

Cast:  Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern

When Nicole gets an offer to star in the pilot of a TV show — which will also mean moving back to LA — she is excited to finally have something that will be her own thing. Charlie, however, belittles the opportunity, leading Nicole to finally decide to leave him. She also suspects he's having an affair. We find out most of this backstory from Nicole herself as she recounts her story to her lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), whom she has engaged upon the recommendation of her TV show's producer. She hires Nora despite her and Charlie's previous agreement to not use lawyers and to split up amicably. The film, in fact, begins with the two of them meeting with a mediator to facilitate this process.

Baumbach gives us a no-holds-barred look at the ugly nature of divorce. Charlie and Nicole are both decent people who want to do the right thing by each other and by their son, Henry. The director establishes this by opening Marriage Story with each of them listing out what they love about the other. Neither list is short and they both have plenty of nice things to say. It almost makes us wonder why these two would want to split up. Then, we see them together and it slowly starts making sense. We see Charlie so wrapped up in his own self that he hardly sees Nicole anymore. We see Nicole unable to confront Charlie and tell him how she really feels. The divorce process brings out the worst in them. They become people who actively want to hurt the other. They are also unable to protect their son from it all.

Marriage Story isn't as serious as all this makes it sound, however. Baumbach's film has an undercurrent of humour throughout — a dark and absurd sort of humour. The scene where Nicole asks her sister to serve Charlie the divorce papers is a highlight. Shout out to Merritt Wever who plays this sister delightfully. The performances are actually wonderful across the board. Johansson and Driver are good, of course, and both will doubtless receive nominations aplenty come awards season. But the supporting cast is equally strong. Led by the inimitable Laura Dern, whose Nora lights up the screen whenever she's in a scene (watch out for her monologue on society's double standards when it comes to parenting expectations), each makes a strong impression. 

And yet, Marriage Story fails to really connect. I found myself at arm's length throughout unable to really care about either of the protagonists or their failing marriage. Despite the performances, Charlie and Nicole are simply not very interesting people. Perhaps there's also a cultural block. There's a confrontation scene between the two that's already much talked about, which is meant to shock us. But having seen people have arguments as heated or more, and still continue to live together for decades, it failed to make much of an impact on me. Being able to relate to the characters and/or story more would have made for a much more engaging viewing perhaps. However, as it stands, all I took away from most of the film was simply an amusing and informative look at the American divorce process. I say most of the film because I finally found a connect at the very end. The scene of Charlie and his son really did move me, and the conclusion was, admittedly, lovely. But by then, it felt too little, too late.

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