There is nothing new in saying every marriage has a story. Watching ‘Marriage Story’, however, is quite a new experience. Directed, produced and written by Noah Baumbach, it is a story of a union that seems to be happy, until it suddenly isn’t. Its unraveling turns out to be a surprisingly light, yet sad, devastating story to watch unfold. As a movie, it is not ‘cinematic’ that it needs to watched on the big screen. In fact, it is quite an ideal TV movie. All 136 minutes of watching two ordinary people fall apart. Yet from the leading roles to supporting casts are names to be found on the biggest movies in cinemas today. So watching this front runner of the 2020 awards season streaming on Netflix is indeed something new.
The critics are all saying this is probably one of the best films of the year. And they are probably spot on. On this one point – This marriage story is so real. The acting. Scarlett Johansson is extremely engaging, if a little distant in the latter half of the story, as Nicole. The movie truly belongs to Adam Driver, who puts so much raw, aching energy into his character Charile that even his most trying moments pulsate with empathy. Alan Alda, Ray Liotta are the male lawyers while the sleek Laura Dern is the shrewd legal mind in stilettos who almost steals the show.
This marriage story is so real. The script. In an interview, Johansson points out how much of the credit should be Baumbach’s. “What surprises a lot of people about this film,” she says, “is that every single hesitation, every unfinished sentence, every moment where an actor talks, all of that stuff is scripted. It’s just so well written. Every single thing that comes out of our mouths is totally scripted, and nothing is improvised. No hesitation. No ‘If….’ No ‘But….’ It’s all completely scripted, and Noah is so specific about it.” Baumbach navigates the ebb and flow; there are long scenes where nothing much happens, other than ordinary life, and others where the hurt and buried sadness explode, years of pent-up emotions packed into a single stare or a stinging word that can’t be unsaid.
This marriage story is so real. The child. A marriage gone awry is commonly complicated by a child. In this case, their son, played with effortless realism by Azhy Robertson. Though this may not be an easy movie to watch, with the fight for custody, or even a particularly original one (‘Kramer vs Kramer’, or Baumbach’s own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh), the level of familiarity of the characters draws us so much into Charlie and Nicole’s world that it sometimes feels like emotional trespassing just sitting in front of the television. This is real life theatre.
“Someone to hold me too close. Someone to hurt me too deep. Someone to sit in my chair, And ruin my sleep, And make me aware, Of being alive. Being alive.’
– Stephen Sondheim