Noah Baumbach uses Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson to devastating effect
A Netflix film. A tag once eliciting of groans, now winning plaudits, vying for Academy Awards, and even gaining entry to the Criterion Collection. Whatever the delivery system, quality shines through, and the latest effort from writer-director Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale) not only garnered six academy award nominations, but provided an emotional showcase for two of today’s most talented actors, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. A deeply personal and affecting work, this week Marriage Story jumps from streaming onto the Criterion disc.
A love story about divorce. A marriage coming apart and a family coming together. Marriage Story is a hilarious and harrowing, sharply observed, and deeply compassionate film from the acclaimed writer-director Noah Baumbach. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver tour-de-force performances as Charlie, a charismatic New York theater director wedded to his work, and Nicole, an actor who is ready to change her own life. Their hopes for an amicable divorce fade as they are drawn into a system that pits them against each other and forces them to redefine their relationship and their family. Featuring bravura, finely drawn supporting turns from Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Laura Dern — who won an Academy Award for her performance here — as the trio of lawyers who preside over the legal battle, Marriage Story (nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture) is a work of both intimacy and scope that ultimately invokes hope amid the ruins.
For Baumbach, Marriage Story feels like something of a companion piece to The Squid and The Whale, an earlier semi-autobiographical work that showed the disintegration of a family from a child’s point of view. Despite the more adult focus, this feels more attuned, nuanced, and insightful than that potent breakout feature. The emotion tempered by humor, sympathy, humor, and the humility of it all. Smart, precise, and affecting writing/direction from Baumbach married to fine performances from two actors at the top of their game. Charlie (Adam Driver) is a theatrical director, one who has often collaborated with his actor wife, Nicole(Scarlett Johansson), since they left her film career behind in Los Angeles, to pursue his stage craft in New York. Together they have a young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Just as Charlie looks to be on the verge of realizing one of his plays, his infidelity drives Nicole back to Los Angeles, for her family, and her career. This that solidifies issues between them and leads her to initiate divorce proceedings. What starts as a peaceful partition, soon becomes polarized, with agreement abandoned, lawyers becoming involved, and animosity coming to the fore.
Marriage Story is composed in a way that juxtaposes different periods of their relationship to show earlier conflict, attempts to work through issues in therapy, against the current day as the legal process takes hold. As a viewer we’re essentially processing the breakdown in marriage, as well as the escalation of divorce. All the while, the audience becomes more familiar with their quirks, routines, resentments, and history, as we experience perspective switching as well as temporal. We also endure the banality of the divorce process, working in geographical plight, regional differences in rights and laws, different tacts and levels of aggression between the lawyers, most pertinently how the pair’s flaws become vulnerabilities to be weaponized, further adding to the depletion of their resources, financial and emotional. Baumbach doesn’t get mired in the minutiae of the legalities, but how exposed and eroded one can become during the process
The screenplay feels very personal and considered, sketching out years of love and conflict with short, composed scenes, enthralling dialogue, and self-deprecating humor, and a touching wistfulness. Adam Driver solidifies his reputation as one of the most impactful actors right now, reckoning with the remnants and regret of this marriage and his fear of the future. Johansson is an assured counterpoint, perfectly channeling the various roles and frustrations a modern woman is often forced to assume, while transitioning from heartbreak to hope. Baumbach’s collaboration with these two talented actors is something well conveyed in the extra features on this release. The pair are buoyed by the talents of a spectacular Laura Dern, a blazing Ray Liotta, a disarming Alan Alda, and an assured turn from the young Azhy Robertson. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s careful choreography imparting distance, conflict, barriers, and more that exist between the leads. As a package, Marriage Story is impecably considered without sacrificing any emotional heft.
On the surface the Criterion release of Marriage Story looks a little simplistic, just reworking some of the original promo-work for the film. But open it up and it’s more considered than you expect. Portraits showcase the two protagonists, with the child in-between them. Fully open, the gate-fold has pockets that house replicas of the two letters the pair write to/about each other in the film.
The presentation of the film also impresses, with a transfer that showcases bold, natural colors, plenty of detail and texture, and a pleasing filmic quality from a retained level of grain. Extra features are:
- New interview with Baumbach: A 20 minute dive into the filmmaker’s conception, approach, and execution of making the film. The interview gets surprisingly personal as he opens up about influences and the experience of realizing his project
- The Players, a new program featuring interviews with actors Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, and Ray Liotta: A collection of interviews where the actors share their impressions of the script, their approach to the roles, and experiences onset and with each other
- The Filmmakers, a new program about the production of the film, featuring interviews with Baumbach, editor Jennifer Lame, production designer Jade Healy, costume designer Mark Bridges, and producer David Heyman: Good insights into the process of production, filming, and editing, to bring the story together
- The Making of “Marriage Story,” a new program featuring behind-the-scenes footage: Running over 90 minutes, this is the standout feature of the release. A really insightful look at the production, peering into the work between Baumbach and his cast. Intense, revealing, and admirable content
- New interviews with composer Randy Newman and Baumbach about the film’s score: A ten minute chat about the musical collaboration and the different approach Newman took here
- New program featuring Baumbach walking the viewer through a key location from the film: A cool breakdown of the apartment set, which shows how considered the production was going into this scene, as well as the approach to staging and filming the two actors
- Trailers: Each of the character specific trailers included
- PLUS: Notes on the film by novelist Linn Ullmann: In the liner notes booklet, which also contains information on the transfer/presentation
The Bottom Line
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story matches an emotional tale with artfully constructed execution. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson captivate as a couple rediscovering themselves, what they have lost, and what they are losing. Criterion enhance appreciation for this compassionate tale with an excellent release.
Marriage Story is available via Criterion from July 21st