The 2019-2020 awards season has barely begun, but it’s not surprising that “Marriage Story” is already a big winner.
Oscar-nominated writer-director Noah Baumbach’s (“The Squid and the Whale”) buzzy divorce drama this week won best feature, the audience award, best screenplay and best actor for Adam Driver at the Independent Film Project’s Gotham Awards in New York. For good reason: It’s a prime example of Oscar bait, boasting a universal, emotionally torturous topic, a sharply written script and a star-studded cast operating at peak form.
It’s also one of those films that never lets you forget you’re watching a film, with a stagy quality that feels like you’ve been invited to see Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda one-up each other in an exclusive acting workshop with Baumbach providing slightly outlandish material liberally sourced from his own life.
It’s appropriate that “Marriage Story” starts with Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) warmly listing the things they love about each other: She’s terrific at picking out gifts, truly playing with their son and dancing like nobody’s watching, while he is a great dresser who cries at movies and loves all the parts about parenting you’re not supposed to like. But it turns out that they’re only saying the lists in their heads; it’s all part of a mediation exercise that Nicole refuses to fully engage in by reading her list out loud.
Baumbach based his “Marriage Story” on his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, so it’s not a shock – but it is often maddening – that he generally presents Charlie in a much more sympathetic light than Nicole.
Contentedly based in New York, Charlie is a successful avant-garde theater director getting his first shot at Broadway, while Nicole is his personal muse and his company’s leading lady who longs to have her own artistic identity, especially if it means she can return to her native Los Angeles.
After the couple separates, she gets the chance to shoot a TV pilot in L.A., and she takes it – and she takes their 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), with her. With the help of her daffy but loving mom and sister (the underused Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever), Nicole starts forging a happy new life for herself and Henry, but Charlie insists the situation is only temporary and they will have to return to New York soon.
Despite their initial agreement that they would split without lawyers, Nicole hires cunning divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (whom Dern plays with just the right balance of sympathetic and sharkish). Charlie initially retains Bert Spitz (Alda), an empathetic and placating retired family lawyer, but eventually decides he needs his own cutthroat legal eagle and hires Jay Marotta (Liotta).
While it might be a challenge for the average viewer to relate to his characters – a well-off couple going through a bicoastal divorce complicated by Broadway rehearsal schedules, TV pilot season and a MacArthur Genius Grant – Baumbach doesn’t help matters by occasionally having them make the kind of preposterous decisions that people only make in movies. No reasonably clear-headed guy spends hundreds of dollars getting their kid’s artwork framed and then can’t be bothered to cover the fist-sized hole he’s put in a wall before the court-appointed psychologist comes to visit – and don’t even get me started about Charlie’s “knife trick” and the reactions to it.
Baumbach deserves kudos for highlighting the adversarial nature of divorce court, revealing the brutal winner-takes-all approach that often wounds already-fractured family lives. But his odd storytelling decisions too often undercut the human dynamics he’s trying to explore.