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Review: Marriage Story

November 22, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, crafting a companion piece of sorts to his acclaimed 2005 breakout film The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story is an incredibly powerful, brilliantly written and extremely well acted film that is both believable and incisive in its wrenching portrait of a marriage breaking up.

The trio of characters at its centre are Charlie (Adam Driver), a theatre director; his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress who performs in his plays; and their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), who all live together in New York.

When they start to drift apart, Charlie and Nicole decide to split up their marriage, with her moving to Los Angeles to be closer to her family, and taking Henry with her. While they initially want to separate amicably without legal aid, Nicole ends up consulting ruthless lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), forcing Charlie to consult with a pair of lawyers, one who is kinder and gentler (Alan Alda) and another who is essentially a street fighter (Ray Liotta). This causes a nasty custody battle for Henry to ensue.

Charlie and Nicole are both sympathetic characters in their own ways, but I have a feeling that audience members will differ on which one they side with more. A big theme of Marriage Story is how the court system often treats one of the sides in a divorce proceeding like a criminal, and Driver’s character even echoes this sentiment at one point in the film. Charlie is simply a father fighting for custody of his son, not necessarily because he has the best resources to take care of him full time, but because he doesn’t want him to grow up thinking that he didn’t try.

The film features a career-best performance from Driver, who brings a mix of raw emotion, sensitivity and indignant pride to his portrayal of Charlie. His performance of a Sondheim song late in the film will rip your heart out. Johansson is also at the top of her game here, and the film builds towards a stunning climactic shouting match between the two leads that provides a gripping masterclass in showy yet still piercingly honest dramatic acting. The young Robertson is also excellent as the child caught in between the two, and the power trio of Dern, Alda and Liotta all deliver memorable supporting turns.

This is an involving and richly rewarding character drama that harkens back to films of the 1970s like Scenes from a Marriage and Kramer vs. Kramer. In true Baumbach fashion, the film is deeply moving as a drama, while also delivering some extremely funny moments that originate naturally, a tricky tonal balance that is perfectly pulled off and recalls the best work of David O. Russell. Beautifully captured by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, and set to a wonderful score by Randy Newman that recalls his work in the Toy Story films, Marriage Story is one of the best movies of the year.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Marriage Story is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and will be available to watch on Netflix as of December 6th.

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