09 December 2019 16:33
Perhaps the only thing more difficult than watching films like Marriage Story is writing about them. Some people avoid watching horror films; others, like Martin Scorsese, might be averse to superhero movies. Director Noah Baumbach's new film, released on Netflix like his last, The Meyerowitz Stories,is utterly heartbreaking. While it begins, deceptively, like a romantic comedy, with both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson's characters speaking glowingly about each other in a whimsical voiceover, it is soon revealed that they are currently in the middle of a bitter divorce. Nicole, a former teen film star, wants to move back to Los Angeles with the couple's eight-year-old son, but Charlie, an up-and-coming theatre director wants to remain in New York.
In Marriage Story, Driver plays a version of the same character he has explored in everything from his breakout television show Girls to the Star Wars films — slightly immature, considerably self-involved, but also capable of decency and warmth. This is his fourth film with Baumbach, and the first time the filmmaker has allowed Driver to fully express his formidable range in a lead role. Played by Laura Dern in a scene-stealing performance, Nora Fanshaw is like the actor's Big Little Lies character, but with a brain. While Baumbach admitted that his 2005 film The Squid and the Whale was a semi-autobiographical telling of his parent's separation, the director has maintained that Marriage Story isn't an account of his own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was, coincidentally, also a teen movie star. Regardless of what the truth is, Marriage Story is so authentic that watching it occasionally feels like eavesdropping on a couple in their most vulnerable moments.
Like if you're setting up a big scene in a movie, you're sort of starting at the beginning. That's one reason why Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story stands out this year, in addition to it genuinely being one of the best movies of 2019, streaming or otherwise. With the divorce drama now streaming exclusively on Netflix, millions of people are watching Marriage Story and choosing sides and hoping for awards for its cast and crew. Still, the title and the fact that the films are all by one male filmmaker would, like Marriage Story, suggest a leaning toward the Him side even in the Her version. Many of those that do exist are foreign films dealing with special laws in other countries, as in the cases of Divorce Iranian Style (1998) and Erasing Dad (2014), the latter of which relates to parts of Charlie's situation in Marriage Story.
Johansson's character, Nicole, is an actress who, despite her acclaimed work on the stage, is best known to the masses for her breakout role baring her breasts in a teen movie. That's a nod — and sort of a cheap one considering Jennifer Jason Leigh's film career — to Leigh's breakout role, with nudity, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. From the beginning, Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, which was originally a miniseries and then a shortened film version, looked like the obvious precursor to and influence on Marriage Story. And the poster for Marriage Story with Johansson, Driver, and little Azhy Robertson in bed looks like it was taken by Sven Nykvist. Stream Scenes from a Marriage television version on The Criterion Channel Stream Scenes from a Marriage theatrical version on The Criterion Channel Baumbach cites two very different kinds of war movies as further influences in the Emanuel Levy interview. Baumbach considers Marriage Story to be a mix of many genres (he's also cited North by Northwest when discussing it being part thriller). Twentieth Century and To Be or Not To Be are linked to the screwball comedy part of Marriage Story with the dynamic between the main characters. As Baumbach told IndieWire of the influence of these showbiz-set classics: "Both of those movies have performers who are in personal relationships in and out of their work. If you're unfamiliar with the songs performed separately by Adam Driver as Charlie ("Being Alive") and Scarlett Johansson, Julie Hagerty, and Merritt Weaver as Nicole, Sandra, and Cassie ("You Could Drive a Person Crazy"), then you need to see the Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical Company. Between Marriage Story and a recent parody of the doc from the series Documentary Now!, it's about time for the film to be made available.