For decades, the push and pull between New York and Los Angeles has folded itself into the fabric of cinema. The coastal cities have created near monopolies on cultural influence around the world, with distinct styles emerging from each city. With the proliferation of filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s, the danger and gruffness of New York created a clear dichotomy against Hollywood filmmaking. The new, gritty style often cashed in on the emotion of its characters. At the same time, Hollywood advanced the technology of filmmaking, using backlots and controlled environments to create worlds unlike any in existence.
While this dichotomous relationship within the industry has been present for decades, only a few films have truly cashed in on the subtle civil war at the movies. With the release of Mariage Story, director Noah Baumbach has crafted a raw and emotional Annie Hall in contemporary times. Thanks to its performances, some will see this as one of the definitive films of 2019. However, the film falters when it overexposes its actors, creating a theatrical instead of a natural feel to the film.
Marriage Story follows the devolving relationship of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver). Nicole was a teen star looking to break back into Hollywood entertainment. Charlie directs a successful acting troupe in New York, which Nicole headlined for years. After Nicole receives a deal to star in a pilot for a new series, she moves to Los Angeles with their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Once there, she officially files for divorce and the two begin a legal battle that intensifies as divorce attorneys lawyers (Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta) get involved.
Baumbach’s story of a dissolving marriage should ring true for anyone who has seen a marriage destroy itself from the inside. His exploration of the destruction we do to one another during these ugly moments come from a raw and emotional place. At the same time, it appears that Baumbach has combined his own relationships with renowned actresses Greta Gerwig and Jennifer Jason Leigh to create an extremely personal tale. Regardless of how much of each relationship gets put on the big screen, it’s clear that there are no heroes here. Instead, these are two people who once cared for each other more than anything else in the world. That means they can hurt each other in ways no one else can. Baumbach’s direction and script give you ample opportunities to side with either person, but at the end of the day, he never makes clear who is right or wrong. This gives Marriage Story a resonance that few other films focused on divorce get the benefit of having.
For Driver, Marriage Story gives him enough material to really showcase his talents. At times, he’s transportive. You can read every inch of pain across his face as he struggles to cope with the events. His physicality surprises at times, allowing Driver to reveal a side of his talent we have not seen in previous roles. Yet other times, it feels as if he pushes the material too hard. The anger and frustration work for most of the film, but some will find it tough to not laugh at a moment or two.
Meanwhile, Johansson fluctuates between theater kid and genuine performance. It feels more intentional from her, and when she finds the raw emotion it really hits home. Yet she blends in odd ticks, including speaking out of the side of her mouth, with little reason beyond making the character more dynamic than the page allows. However, this can come off as too much. The character of Nicole should be too good, but the small distractions make her character come off as inauthentic. Perhaps this was Baumbach’s point, but if so it disrupts the very purpose of telling the story the way he does.
Perhaps the most egregious overacting comes from Dern. The veteran actress continues to prove she’s one of the best in the business, but the character’s ego overtakes the screen. Dern plays her with far less subtlety than her Big Little Lies character, and ultimately there are too many similarities to ignore. It would not be so glaring if she did not already play a better version of a similar character mere months ago. Dern is not bad, but I was hoping for more from the roles that will likely give her an Oscar win in February.
The remaining cast rounds out the cast perfectly. Alda shines as an incompetent lawyer, but a wonderfully enjoyable man. You feel drawn into his stories and analysis, but it’s only when you begin to listen to his words that its clear he’s outmatched. He’s one of the few genuinely good people in this film, and that light feels precious. Both Julie Hagerty and Merritt Weaver utilize their comedic timing to perfection. They embody the awkwardness of divorce and you’ll miss them when they leave the screen. Liotta gets some great sparring scenes with Dern, and two show their true talent between the court appearances.
For the most part, Marriage Story has earned its reputation as a complicated look at divorce. Johansson earns the standout status, and Driver should continue to build on his strong body of work. However, Baumbach’s style creates opportunities for unauthentic moments in a film that needs authenticity to work. Yet Marriage Story works its best when Baumbach opens up. There’s beauty within this terrible process, and those will be the moments we’ll remember.
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