TIFF 2019: Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019, USA)

               Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story follows the dissolution of a marriage over the course of 137 minutes. In those minutes, we come to find ourselves knowing the couple – played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson – as one knows a friend. These are deeply rich characters with intensely complex inner and outer lives, expertly written and fully realized in the two performances. This is the best film from Noah Baumbach that I have seen so far – echoing the best of Bergman and Allen in equal measure – but with a voice all its own.
               The film opens in media res, with Driver and Johansson in a divorce mediation session. This sets off what in some ways is a story of two cities – New York and Los Angeles. For Nicole, played by Johansson, moving to Los Angeles represents a reclamation of her selfhood and acting career after what she perceives as years of playing second fiddle to Charlie’s (Driver) success as a theater director. But as Charlie is keen to remind Nicole, they are a “New York family.” One of the central battles of the film is over where the couples’ young son Henry will end up living in the wake of their separation.
               Driver at first believes that they will be able to handle the separation without a lawyer. Over the course of the film, we watch as he begins to realize the impossibility of this. His awakening from blissful ignorance of Nicole’s feelings to the realization of her intense dissatisfaction with their marriage is deeply powerful. Baumbach is a master of tragicomedy – numerous scenes in the film transition from laughs to suffering in an almost seamless fashion. Driver and Johansson show the ambivalence and complexities of the relationship – in one scene, a mundane conversation turns to a heated argument, and then ends in apologies.
               The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with the lawyers Charlie and Nicole hire – Ray Liotta and Alan Arkin for Charlie, Laura Dern for Nicole – garnering some of the most laughs in the script. Baumbach cleverly does not pick sides in the relationship, but he must realize that audience members will end up identifying more strongly with Nicole or Charlie’s character at some point in the film. And despite the pain in the film – and there is a great deal of it – Baumbach manages most miraculously of all to maintain a sense of hope and reconciliation.



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