MARRIAGE STORY – Review by Diane Carson

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Marriage Story presents the intense unraveling of a couple’s life together

Writer/director Noah Baumbach tackles one of everyone’s most difficult experiences in Marriage Story, that is, the dissolution of an intimate relationship that also includes a cherished, young son. Adam Driver as husband Charlie and Scarlett Johansson as wife Nicole delve deep into painful emotional territory in a narrative alternately sweet, even amusing, tender, and, ultimately, agonizing.

Charlie is a relatively successful New York playwright, Nicole a theater actress who seizes an opportunity in L.A. as she and Charlie move into divorce proceedings. Lawyers and relatives soon factor in, displaying a range from supportive to vindictive behavior. As Nicole’s lawyer Nora Fanshaw, Laura Dern as adds a strident voice to the proceedings, while attorneys Ray Liotta as Jay and Alan Alda as Bert Spitz provide more eccentric personas, but striking characters.

Insightfully written, the film begins surprisingly with Nicole and Charlie reading a list, an assignment by a counselor, of the peculiar but lovable strengths of their spouse, actions described as brief clips present them. This is a unique, clever way to introduce the unique characters: Charlie’s competitiveness, Nicole’s close familial ties to mother Sandra (a wonderful Julie Hagerty) and sister Cassie (a very funny Merritt Wever). This quick introduction also paves the way for a striking evolution from lovers to friends to enemies, moving to a landmark fight scene, almost beyond belief.

At this year’s Telluride Film Festival, director Baumbach and Adam Driver (absolutely brilliant) discussed this confrontation. They noted that, as spontaneous as it looks, they rehearsed it for two weeks and took two days to film it, a scene that leaves me breathless and terrified in its raw emotional impact. Its absurdity is as laser focused as it is truthful in capturing two individuals who know exactly how to target vulnerable emotions. In the anger and heat of their alienation, neither can resist attacking their one-time partner and defending themselves. It’s as honest as it is unnerving.

A couple funny musical numbers and Randy Newman’s spot-on score keep the pace lively and the atmosphere upbeat, between the skirmishes. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography also adds atmosphere brighter than expected but just right. Marriage Story is a powerful, heartbreaking character study.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.