Review: Marriage Story (2019) A Devastating Break-up of the Poignant Kind

The thought that their marriage will crumble down the road never once invades the minds of any newly-weds. Every couple walks into a marriage with their hearts full and both eyes clear on the future. Among my close friends, I have seen three divorces. One friend was keeping a stack of receipts on the advice of his lawyer. Another has his wrapped up in a long-drawn tussle between the Lawyers that stretched for a few years. I notice the only winners are the lawyers. I myself have been through a couple of break-ups and I don’t think back on them fondly. Most times, I wished them to have a fun time rotting in their private hell. I am sure the feeling is mutual. Netflix’s Marriage Story is a keenly observed and incisive study on the breakdown of a marriage and it is a timely one. It’s this millennium’s Kramer vs Kramer (1979) without the schmaltz.

The movie opens with a heartfelt voice-over. An avant garde theatre director and soon-to-be ex-husband Charlie (Adam Driver) shares what is so unique about his soon-to-be ex-wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson):

“She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things. She really listens when somebody is talking. Sometimes she listens too much for too long. She’s a good citizen. She always knows the right thing to do when it comes to difficult family shit. I get stuck in my ways and she knows when to push me and when to leave me alone…..”

The table turns and we are privy to what Nicole notices about Charlie through another voice-over:

“Charlie is undaunted. He never lets other people’s opinions or any setbacks keep him from what he wants to do. Charlie eats like he’s trying to get it over with and like there won’t be enough food for everyone. A sandwich is to be strangled while devoured.  But he’s incredibly neat and I rely on him to keep things in order. He’s energy conscious. He doesn’t look in the mirror often. He cries easily in movies…”

Wait a minute! They can’t be getting a divorce. I can’t believe it because those are words that can only be written by two persons in love. Except that it’s true… they are separating and a mediator wants them to read their lists to one another in a bid to keep the divorce proceedings civil in the hope of reaching a settlement. However, Nicole refuses to participate.

Herein lies the magic of Marriage Story – Charlie and Nicole are made for each other. I came away with the knowledge that when a marriage is at its end, it may mean the end of their love for each other, but they can and should still have genuine care and concern for each other. It is lugubrious to see the story unfold because it couldn’t have happened to the nicest people. 

Divorce is like “a death without a body” as put forth by Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), a family lawyer engaged by Charlie. Noah Baumbach has crafted a deeply humane and compassionate study of the death of a marriage and a family trying to stay together. It would be so easy to have a villain and have us take obvious sides, but Baumbach takes a different route, allowing us to survey the devastating emotional battlefield. There are no winners in a divorce, except perhaps the lawyers. It may be a hugely pessimistic domestic drama, but it manages to find humour in the most unusual of places. 

This is a true actors’ movie, cast wrong and the message is lost, but cast right the movie is transcendent. Driver and Johansson gave the performances of their careers. It is hard to see any other actors in the roles after you have seen them here. They are so good I didn’t see Kylo Ren and Black Widow. Each of them is also given an individual scene to shine – Johansson in a speech to family lawyer Nora (a superb Laura Dern) and Charlie doing a Sondheim number in a bar. Then they both have a one-shot scene together that is definitely my second favourite Scene of the Year (the first goes to For Sama). It is the one where they spew out the stuff you never and shouldn’t say to a partner, but yet they do and from that moment on, nothing can ever go back to what it was. The aftermath is miraculously sublime – they both understand where those hurtful words come from, a no-holds-barred release from riled-up tension created by their lawyers who character-assassinated both of them. 

Baumbach has crafted a family drama that is masterful, giving us an intimate look at the destruction of a marriage, the legal minefield and the emotional devastation. The principal cast, down to even the supporting cast, lay down a high watermark. It is able to find nuances and dark humour in surprising places. Baumbach’s love for Charlie and Nicole shines like a lighthouse in a perilous stormy night, guiding us to the safety of the shore. This is the work of a storyteller at the top of his game. This is almost a blueprint on how to end a life partnership and suddenly I don’t wish the worst for CT, SL and Valerie anymore. Like Charlie and Nicole, I hope they have a bright future.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Written by Daniel Chiam.

One Reply to “Review: Marriage Story (2019) A Devastating Break-up of the Poignant Kind”

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