Adam Driver busts out a spontaneous piano-bar rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” in Marriage Story. That alone justifies taking the time to watch the film, now streaming on Netflix.
Fortunately, there are other reasons besides Driver’s surprisingly amazing voice to see the movie … actually, a lot more. Driver and Scarlett Johansson are incredible in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s best movie yet—an alternately searing, touching and hilarious look at a marriage’s end times.
Nicole and Charlie Barber work together in a theater company; she’s a performer, while he’s the director. The movie starts with them deciding to go through a divorce; they promise each other things will remain amicable, and lawyers won’t get involved. Nicole will go to Los Angeles and pursue film acting, while Charlie stays in New York to work on his latest play getting to Broadway. They are determined to share custody of their young son. This will be a pleasant divorce.
Then … well, the lawyers get involved.
Early in the film, you may wonder why these two are getting divorced. They’re both fairly calm about it; heck, you might even think there’s a chance they can pull out of the nosedive and reconcile.
Nope. This director will not be trafficking in easy endings. Baumbach knows two people can really love each other, yet put themselves through a progressive, scorching hell. Nicole tries to remain civil, but Charlie has done stuff that’s going to result in rougher proceedings. Nicole gets herself a lawyer in Nora (Laura Dern, being the best Laura Dern ever); Charlie eventually caves in and gets one, too, in Bert Spitz (a funny Alan Alda) and, later, Jay (an even funnier Ray Liotta).
I’m going to go out on a limb and say this film includes the most realistic, earth-shattering, devastatingly honest marital fight I’ve ever seen in a movie. The participants in this scene must have needed some sort of assistance when it was all over. Driver and Johansson do things in this film you will not soon forget. It’s not just the moments when they tear into each other; they do a credible job of letting you know this isn’t simply a case of two people falling out of love: They still love each other, and that’s what makes the vitriol so hard to watch. While Baumbach and his cast definitely show the reasons for the marriage’s failure, the movie allows for you to wish things will get better—even as they are getting far worse. It’s so well written that it’s scary.
Randy Newman puts forth a score that is playful, hopeful and bright, even when the movie goes bleak. It’s almost like the music is there to soften the blows. It’s one of the year’s best scores, and one of the best of Newman’s storied career.
Adding to the amazing supporting cast alongside Dern and Alda is the legendary Julie Hagerty, she of Airplane!, Lost in America, What About Bob? and the vastly underrated Freddy Got Fingered. She plays Nicole’s mom, also an actress, and she’s the funniest part of the movie. Her participation makes the hard stuff go down easier.
I expect there will be a cavalcade of Oscar nominations for this one—and there damned well should be. It’s one of the best movies of the year, and one of the best and most honest films about relationships ever made. Baumbach has gone next-level with Marriage Story—and you won’t soon forget the ballad of Nicole and Charlie.
Marriage Story is now streaming on Netflix. It’s also playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).