Divorce is a traumatic event for many, and considering that fifty percent of marriages end up that way, many of us in the U.S. have undergone its agony. These are the people who can immerse themselves in “Marriage Story” and be particularly caught up in the emotions on display. What’s more, since it is based on what the writer has experienced—specifically Noah Baumbach’s divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh—the exposure becomes even more arresting.
While some get divorced because their partners commit adultery (surprisingly, in a liberal state like New York, adultery was once the only allowable argument for a split), others get bored with their partners, maybe some more have changed emotionally and intellectually, growing apart from their spouses. In the case of “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach—whose “The Squid and the Whale” in 2005 finds two boys in Brooklyn trying to cope with their parents’ separation—the split is not desired mutually. The woman, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) seeks divorce from her husband Charlie (Adam Driver). Neither of them is a typical nine to five worker. Both are directors, though Nicole is primarily an actress. Nicole feels slighted for having obeyed Charlie’s insistence that she remain with him in New York City where he is an up-and-coming director of off-Broadway plays, while she has repeatedly had to turn down offers for movie roles in Hollywood.
The divorce could have been amicable, or as amicable as you sometimes think when you read about celebrities who say they “remains friends.” But a child is involved, and children complicate lives. Disputes over custody of eight-year-old Henry (Azhy Robertson) turns what could have been as close to “let’s be friends” to matches of yelling and screaming, in one case their raised voices and just a threat of physical violence puts you on notice that they will rehash the histrionics of “The War of the Roses,” when Michael Douglas’s Oliver Rose and Kathleen Turner’s Barbara Rose virtually reenacting the American Civil War in their fight to determine who moves out of the house.
In what could be regarded as playing the feminist card, Nora (Laura Dern), serving as Nicole’s aggressive lawyer, notes that fathers get away with near murder. The society expects women, says Nora, to be like the Virgin Mary, perfect, while men can get away with doing as little as possible, that the world expects men to be screw-ups. For his part Charlie hires Bert Spitz to be his lawyer, a laid-back fellow with some old-fashioned jokes at $450 an hour, but Charlies fires him for the more aggressive Jay (Ray Liotta), $950 an hour with $25,000 retainer. Since Charlie insists on continuing his job directing plays in Brooklyn while Nicole is determined to remain in L.A. to continue her career with films, the battle is fought out in court, the sparring of the counselors, particularly Nora, scoring points for those of us in the audience who sympathize with her.
We may be manipulated into sympathizing with her from the beginning, but as the story goes on, Charlie, and especially Nicole,go through emotional changes, sometimes showing vulnerability, other times a rugged determination to win custody of the boy. With a terrific performances all around. Special kudos to young Azhy Robertson as a boy who wants to remain in L.A. and appears to lean toward siding with his mom.
“Marriage Story” is far from a downer, but is instead mixed with comic moments at some times hilarious, and other times examples of pure entertainment. Julie Hagerty turns on an eccentric performance as Nicole’s mom who, rather than having the traditionally suspect relationship with her son-in-law loves the poor guy and appears almost ready to marry him as soon as the divorce becomes final. Score one for a male director’s empathy for feminism, ready and able to sign on to the idea that in marriage as in the corporate sphere, women are getting shafted.
136 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Larua Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 11/13/19
Opens: November 6, 2019
Story – B+
Acting – A
Technical – B+
Overall – B+