Telluride Film Review: ‘Marriage Story’ Finds the Keen Insight Into Family and Divorce

2019 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: The alluring qualities of Noah Baumbach have been felt in many of his particular outings such as “Kicking and Screaming,” “The Squid and the Whale,” and “Frances Ha.” The writer/director has touched on personal notes throughout but never as privately affected as his newest film, “Marriage Story.” Understanding his peculiarities as a man and a filmmaker, Baumbach reaches deep within himself and mirroring his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, presents the single best film of his career. Not just in technique, Baumbach extracts the very best from his stellar ensemble, in particular stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, as the two spars in a significant demonstration of acting and commitment, leaving both as winners.

“Marriage Story,” tells the story of Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johansson), a middle-aged couple who are in the beginning moments of their impending divorce. When Nicole decides to involve lawyers, the two navigate communication and compassion as their marriage breaks up and their family fights to stay together.

As the film begins to unfold, bestowing an actor’s showcase, some moments call back to such films as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a dense and complex story with many emotions ensuing simultaneously that only skilled thespians can successfully navigate. Adam Driver emerges as the Marlon Brando of the picture, cementing his place in cinema as one of the greatest actors of our generation. Also an apt comparison because he is developing and deconstructing Charlie in an utterly distinct manner, likely something many have never seen before in cinema. He submerges himself into Charlie, digging up the insecurity and narcissism that plagues his relationships, and then reemerges as a sympathetic figure for the viewer to latch onto throughout his journey. This doesn’t absolve Baumbach and his actions in his own real-life marriage, which may have been an agenda for the director when tackling the project. It’s Driver that reinvents the man and taps into the soul of the film that may have been plagued without his involvement.

As one looks at the career of Scarlett Johansson, we’ve seen a trajectory similar to someone like Julia Roberts in the late 1980s. She first blazed onto our independent scene with “Ghost World” before moving toward a breakout year in 2003 that included “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and “Lost in Translation,” two powerhouse performances that should have landed her on Oscar’s shortlist. We’ve watched Johansson weave through roles that have been, mostly, appropriate for the actress to take on including “Under the Skin,” “Don Jon,” and “Her,” another turn that warranted awards attention.

As the 34-year-old actress equips herself to interpret Nicole and her emotional connect—and disconnect—to her husband, the actress hits a career high. Totally believable that she was the mother of an eight-year-old boy, with a husband she has given up on understanding, Johansson gallops through the screen like a deluxe mare, taking no prisoners. Her renowned sense of angst and dilemma animate themselves on her skin like a hopeless lesion for which there is no treatment besides her own tears. For one extended sequence, Johansson transforms into the seasoned actress we all know has hidden behind popcorn superhero films and improper whitewashing roles for the past few years.  Showcasing what she can achieve in roles that suit her, we can only hope she continues to evolve and chase these roles as her career matures.

The rest of the cast finds their own proper moments to shine throughout. Laura Dern as the rhetorical lawyer is superbly administered, giving an underlying message following one of Driver and Johansson’s most crucial scenes in an apartment. It’s the performance that may surely land her that long-overdue Academy Award she has deserved for decades.  Alan Alda‘s opposite, quiet, more reserved lawyer, who represents Charlie, is charming as any Alan Alda character can be, and serves as a reminder that we must cherish the veteran actor in any role he takes on in his career. Ray Liotta, criminally misused over the years, channels a fiery take on the divorce system, echoing a similar awards-worthy performance to Dern.

You also can’t skate by without mentioning, even though brief, the brilliance, and inclusions of “Airplane” actress Julie Hagerty, Emmy winner Merrit Wever, and the one-scene masterclass of Mary Hollis Inboden as the “Evaluator,” who all bring much-needed laughs to a grim endeavor.

It can be easy to overlook the technical merits of a picture like this, as Robbie Ryan‘s cinematography frames each scene with grace and sentiment. Randy Newman‘s musical accompaniment may not feel like those good old “Toy Story” jingles to which we’ve become accustomed, but he manages to live within each pivotal moment, raising the emotional stakes of each line delivered, with an equally powerful musical note.

And then we’re left with the raw and exposed soul of Noah Baumbach. While many can take issue with his method of therapy by telling this story, and one can certainly point out that there are moments in which he is clearly giving himself absolve from the sins he has committed, it would be vital for the viewer to distance themselves from any “known” or “unknown” facts from his personal life.

Undoubtedly there are moments that the script doesn’t exactly give the proper agency to the female counterpart as he does with the male, but there is bravery in telling a story such as this, and one would hope that the female version of this tale—whatever or wherever it may be at the moment—would be told, to give the same bleak and honest look at marriage and where it can lead a family.

Marriage Story” is most alive in its performances. Baumbach has never been more attuned with an actor’s needs and capacity to go beyond their comfort zones. It is the director’s best effort yet, and one that is captivating to sit back and watch unfold. A true family drama, it reverberates the likes of classics such as “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Ordinary People,” but for the modern age. And we all know how those turned out.

“Marriage Story” is distributed by Netflix and opens in limited release on Nov. 6 before going to their streaming platform on Dec. 6.

GRADE: (★★½)

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