MARRIAGE STORY - Review - We Are Movie Geeks



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Ah, this film’s poster promises the adored end result of many a typical “rom-com’, or even a full-fledged “hearts and flowers” love story (with part of that in the title itself). There are two “A” list actors (each part of major “tentpole” franchises) happily nuzzling each other while an adorable child (perhaps the product of their screen coupling) seems to be giggling in the photo’s lower half. But looks, along with movie “ballyhoo” can be most deceiving. Especially with one of our most acclaimed “indie” writer/directors is given the big credit above the title. Just what is his “take” on the institution in this very modern MARRIAGE STORY?

Said story certainly begins on an uplifting note as we’re dropped right in the middle of two montages that deliver “warm fuzzies” that most greeting card commercials try to elicit. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) narrates the snippets that support her remarks concerning the strengths of Charlie (Adam Driver) as husband and father, followed by his singing (well speaking) of her praises. And where is this “admiration society” meeting taking place? Well, it’s the office of a marriage “mediator”, because these two are separating. Nicole storms out, loudly proclaiming these lists are bull…um…nonsense. They try to go back to their jobs, which is tough since they work together. She’s part of an avant-guard off, off-Broadway theatre troupe and he’s the founder/director. Nicole makes it clear that after the production opens and is “on its feet” she plans to return to LA with their nine-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Wever) live out there so they can help with Henry while she tries to return to movies or TV (prior to NYC she starred in a hit teen comedy flick). At the suggestion of some new industry friends, Nicole talks to, and soon hires, high-profile family attorney Nora (Laura Dern) to work on the divorce and the custody agreement. When Charlie flies out for a visit, he’s blindsided by her news (“I thought we were leaving out the lawyers”). After a brutal meeting with legal “pit bull” Jay (Ray Liotta), Charlie finally finds a lawyer Nicole hadn’t contacted, a semi-retired entertainment attorney now family lawyer Bert Spitz (Alan Alda). As Charlie attempts to establish a California residence while flying back and forth to NYC (his new play may be headed uptown), he and Nicole realize that their marriage can’t be saved, but, for the sake of Henry, will they still be able to remain a family?

This is a film filled to the brim with superb performance, with Ms. Johansson delivering perhaps the best dramatic work of her twenty-plus years in movies. For about the last half of that time she has mainly bounced from “rom-com” heroine to SF/fantasy femme fatale (we’ll get to see her Marvel work one more time in this May’s Black Widow prequel), however she goes through the full range of emotions as the often conflicted, eventually determined Nicole. At first, she seems to be a cliche “flighty” actress, rejecting counseling, and discarding her family over career ambitions. Then there’s her riveting revealing confessional to her possible lawyer Nora. It’s a powerhouse one-take “no cuts” several-minute monologue in which she truly “bares all”, going from being an exposed “raw nerve” to focused “crusader”, liberated by finally giving voice to her frustrations and disappointments. We get another sample of her considerable skills much later as she goes “toe to toe” in another long dialogue (like a mini two-act play) with the equally talented Driver. His character Charlie changes as well, starting as the victim, a “good dad” “sucker-punched” until we see his often stubborn selfish nature as his artistic goals are nearly smothering his partner. Driver also puts a fresh spin on the “fish out of water” riffing on the East-Coaster aghast at the shallow trappings of “La La Land”. At times he’s a clueless lost traveler in a confusing tangle legal web. He’s pretty funny too, as he fails to predict his son’s impulses and especially when a sight gag goes terribly wrong. Also bringing the funny, Hagerty as Nicole ditzy mother (she doesn’t understand that she can’t remain pals with her kids’ exes), Wever as the jittery, flustered sister (she ‘s gotta’ serve “papers” to Charlie), and Wallace Shawn as the most senior member of Charlie’s acting troupe (look at the faces of his much younger costars as he repeats another story about his “glory days”). And of course, there’s comedy icon Alda whose mild-mannered Bert is almost eaten alive by the legal sharks led by the formidable Dern who is truly a barracuda in high heels, in one great scene she roars back at society’s double standards that shackle her gender. Equally fearsome on the flip side is Liotta whose Jay is pure macho swagger in a thousand-dollar tailored suit.

Noah Baumbach expertly brings his moving, unpredictable script to vivid life with no false steps or cardboard villains. Though they’re battling in the courtrooms, Nicole and Charlie still share moments of kindness and compassion, all for the best of reasons, namely the well-being of son Henry. Though they clash there’s still the underlying respect so that Henry never hears a “burn” from one parent about the other. There’s no flashy camerawork, though Baumbach knows just when to cut in for a telling look or glance. But his biggest strength is as a guide to the cast through the emotional minefield of a disintegrating relationship. Everything is real with no easy fixes or reconciliations. It’s the end of a romance, but the partnership begins to morph into something else. In that way, the tale of these two (three really) is actually hopefull. Though often unbearably raw, MARRIAGE STORY is an uplifting modern ode to a family’s resilience.

3.5 Out of 4

MARRIAGE STORY opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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