Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is the kind of film I only watch occasionally as they take a lot out of me, but it’s an important, focused and purely distilled treatise on a relationship that is coming to an end that I greatly enjoyed. That’s not to say it’s a hopelessly bleak and hostile experience, there are many touching moments, humour breaks and passages of whimsy, but when it becomes all business we are flung headlong into both the emotionally oppressive and practically draining wheels of a divorce in motion and that is never a nice thing to witness. This is honest, dutiful work with a naturalistic feel for the way time passes, beautiful and affecting performances from the entire cast and deeply thought out direction from Baumbach, who I was impressed with considering this is his first film that I’ve seen.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannsson are Charlie and Nicole, a husband and wife who begin to sense the spark dimming. First they opt for a separation and we imagine them as two civil parents who can work this out easily, until we take a magnified look at their life and see that it’s more complicated than that, and then then the big guns come out. By big guns I mean two voracious divorce lawyers played by the always amazing Laura Dern and the ever intense Ray Liotta, chewing scenes like there’s no tomorrow but always giving the impression that these proceedings are believable, and sadly so. Also quite effective is Alan Alda as another attorney who comes across as more of a teddy bear when seated next to Dern and Liotta’s sharks. Julie Hagerty, Merritt Weaver, Wallace “inconceivable” and others all make vivid, hilarious impressions as well.
What I enjoyed most about this film is that it not only chooses to focus on the mammoth narrative beats and crucial cruxes of the story that are meant to and do make an impression. It also shines a light on the small talk, the spaces in between words, the benign and seemingly non important mundanities of human interaction that often end up speaking the loudest. There is one conversation between Charlie and Nicole (you’ll know as soon as it comes) that begins affably enough and in a few moments time has escalated into the kind of volcanic venom spewing that can only punch holes in the air and leave the room as silent as before they entered it. It’s an extraordinarily acted sequence but equally impressive are the small moments between the two and those around them, realistic depictions of awkward dialogue and behaviour that has you investing in this world for real. The big moments matter, but the small ones do too, I love and appreciate when a filmmaker realizes and implements this. Great film.