Marriage Story strikes the balance between heartache and crucial catharsis

I think that all movies can be boiled down, reduced to their very core, and ultimately sorted into two clear-cut categories: movies about events and movies about people. Of course, all movies have a plot and characters to fulfill that, but in the simplest sense, they are usually either an interesting circumstance or a character study. 

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is the most untainted example of the second. By taking Charlie and Nicole Barbour (played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson at perhaps their career-best) and starting the narrative with the cruelly simple action of beginning legal separation, the movie starts with an ordinary occurrence and lets the narrative go from there. The reasons for their divorce are slowly let on as the plot progresses, but none are earth-shattering and grandiose. It’s rather revealed that two people realized their love wasn’t strong enough to outweigh their underlying differences. 

The Barbour family, including their eight-year-old son Henry, have been living in New York for over a decade. Charlie’s self-made theatre company, which stars Nicole as a principal actress, is where he makes a living directing. Throughout the duration of the film, Charlie insists “We’re a New York Family,” because the entirety of their relationship occurred in New York.

Nicole, however, decides that, along with leaving her husband, she aspires to move out of the city as well, traveling all the way back to Los Angeles to be with her family and to finally get back to her film roots and star in a new TV pilot. 

Driver and Johansson are two mismatched socks. Strikingly, and fundamentally different, but a pair, nonetheless. They play off each other as two sides of the same dented coin. The film is a subversion of the typical cinematic divorce story of villainizing one party while raising up the other. Instead, both characters have the chance to state their stake in the case. Both have the chance to defend themselves. Both have the chance to be understood, both for their emotional tether to Henry and the life they lament over. Be it Johansson’s one shot, almost six-minute monologue that feels like a stage-like soliloquy, or Driver’s raw, pithy performance of “Being Alive” from Sondheim’s Company. Each party gets their point of view of the divorce across, their reason for being “right.”

Yet, they both are irrevocably flawed. It’s one of the most morally gray movies I can recall seeing in recent memory. Part of me wants to root for both parties in their custody battle and a tantamount part of me hopes neither wins anything. The performances felt deeply rooted in reality. 

A proportion of this can be attributed to the realistic script, also penned by Baumbach, but a greater testament should be given to the two leads. It can’t be understated; they’re so good, so utterly convincing and accurate in their portrayals. They’re compelling without being contrived. The dialogue, from casual conversation to full-blown screaming matches, felt like prying on genuine people, not watching actors who memorized a script. 

The two Barbours gave celestial performances; their star power outshining absolutely everything, yet there were other performers who still glowed. Henry Barbour (Azhy Robertson) the object of everyone’s attention had a childlike endearance and was impressive for an actor of such a young age, especially amongst such well-known costars. Other than the doomed central couple, the myriad of lawyers were scene stealers. Nicole’s lawyer, the quick-witted, tenacious Nora (Laura Dern) had the strong will to make her admirable and the passion to make her role credible. Charlie’s two lawyers oppose each other, but the binary opposition allows each to step into their role with more satisfaction. The “good cop” of the two, the kind and forgiving, Bert (Alan Alda) supports the original intentions of Charlie’s approach to the divorce, and his foil, the deadly shark that is Ray (Jay Marotta) represents the ugly, messy ways things have become. The superb supporting cast only further proves that casting directors Francine Maisler and Douglas Aibel deserve a genuine congratulations.

The movie’s true testament was how attached I became to the characters. The laborious burden of the custody battle is taxing on both the characters and the viewer. The fat, rolling tears that fell on my face matched the cries of Charlie and Nicole.

The film broke my heart, but the pain was brightly gray and laced with the bittersweet finality that comes with peaceful, unhappy endings.