The 400-Word Review: Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach's heartbreaking tale of love and divorce may be 2019's best film.

PHOTO COURTESY NETFLIX

I shouldn’t have been able to walk out feeling good about life.

A blow-by-blow account of Noah Baumbach’s excellent “Marriage Story” would reveal a heartbreaking decline. It is the story of a marriage corroded, a family dissolved and the futility of innocence.

Yes, it’s tragic. This is the first movie in years that made me bury my face in my hands; I was reeling with sorrow for these characters. Yet I left the theater not only affirmed, but emboldened. Deep within the specific magic of this nearly perfect film is an alchemically significant quantity of hope.

Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johannson) is a former teen star, now acting primarily in the New York theater of her husband, Charlie Barber (Adam Driver). Charlie is more than a bit aloof but well-meaning and generally lauded for his avant-garde takes; the company he runs is clearly enamored with him, as Nicole once was. Now, however, they’re trying to navigate a divorce — struggling mightily to keep things civil for the sake of their young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).

The amicable parting begins to turn when Nicole and Henry head west; she has a pilot to film, and they’re all close with her California-based family. Almost on a whim, Nicole decides to hire a lawyer after all, a smiling shark (Laura Dern) who declares a bitter battle is forthcoming. Charlie meets with an equally aggressive advocate (Ray Liotta) before settling for one he can actually afford (Alan Alda). The sticking point is one of residence: Nicole would like to stay in the Sunshine State, with Henry.

That’s the loaded conflict that lays bare the underlying tensions: The family’s choices, Nicole’s career and Charlie’s and the fundamental power dynamic of the relationship. It’s a vivid tour of the couple’s psychological history; moreover, it’s a journey through the complexities of emotion. You don’t need to have been through a divorce or a custody battle to connect with Charlie’s struggle to restrain his disappointment; you don’t need to have deferred your own dreams to feel the resonance of Nicole’s mourning for her lost years.

Yet Baumbach’s film does not cast these feelings as curses. Late in the film, Charlie sings the Broadway tune “Being Alive,” which may underline the theme: Even years of ugliness and loss are essential to full and vibrant humanity. It’s an argument that “Marriage Story” makes more beautifully than any film I can name.

My Rating: 10/10

“Marriage Story” is playing in select theaters and will begin streaming on Netflix on Friday, Dec. 6.

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