Wednesday 15 January 2020

Movie Review: Marriage Story (2019)

A family drama, Marriage Story is a hard look at a divorce case dissolving from amicable to hostile.

The marriage of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) Barber is falling apart and heading for a divorce. He is the director of a small but well-regarded New York City theatre company. She is his star actress, having give up a possible movie career. They have an 8 year old son Henry, who still prefers a parent to sleep next to him and is late in learning to read.

Nicole now perceives Charlie as self-absorbed and neglectful of her career. She relocates to Los Angeles, taking Henry with her, and starts filming a television pilot. Although they had promised not to use lawyers, Nicole hires the high-powered Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) and files for divorce. Charlie is shocked, and counters by hiring the laid-back Bert Spitz (Alan Alda). The custody battle hinges on whether the family is based in Los Angeles or New York, and through the legal process all the irritations between the couple come flooding out.

Although Marriage Story is far from original, it is earnest and elevated by sincere performances. Director and writer Noah Baumbach revisits terrain he already traversed in The Squid And The Whale (2005), and earlier made familiar by films like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and A Cool Dry Place (1998).

The focus this time is on the disruptive and expensive impact of aggressive lawyers in the domestic break-up. From the moment Nora sinks her hooks into Nicole, the divorce trajectory turns from a tentative drift to a swelling avenue of bitterness, with the lawyers the only beneficiaries. Baumach's script allows the depth of Nicole's unhappiness to be revealed in layers, and perhaps her reaching out to Nora was suppressed resentment bursting forth.

The issues generated by Charlie's ego and Nicole's unheralded sacrifice festered for years, and are now exposed in long dialogue scenes. Some work better than others. Nicole revealing the marriage's history to Nora in a long take is simply captivating, with Johansson mesmeric. Later the couple's attempt at civil discourse turns into a emotional shouting match and does not quite land, Driver willing but not quite able to convey the intended anguish.

Laura Dern makes a sharp impression as a barracuda in high heels. Ray Liotta gets a couple of scenes as the legal weapon Charlie considers using for the battle ahead.

A few moments of humour are sprinkled throughout the drama, but Baumbach allows the film to creep to an astonishing 136 minutes. The Los Angeles vs. New York debate drags on for far too long, and a knife incident is a needless distraction. A couple of wholly unnecessary songs add to the tedium.

Sifting through the debris of a once happy union, Marriage Story conveys the unfortunately all-too-common pain and sorrow of breaking up, made much worse by lawyers smelling profit.

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