Friday, January 03, 2020
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story is the story about a theater director and an actress trying to have amicable divorce as it lead to a troubled custody battle for their son. The film is a study of a marriage disintegrating with two people who care about each other as they both go into different directions and cities but also want to be civil only to get into an ugly custody battle. Starring Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, and Merritt Wever. Marriage Story is a witty yet touching film from Noah Baumbach.
The marriage between a theater director and his leading lady is ending as the two try to maintain an amicable divorce as the latter moves to Los Angeles to star in a pilot only for the show to be picked up leading to a chaotic custody battle for their young son. That is the film’s overall plot as it’s more about two people falling out of love and trying to understand what is best for their son but also for themselves just as they start to see the flaws in themselves in their marriage. Noah Baumbach’s screenplay is set into two different cities in New York and Los Angeles as the former is where Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) does much of his theater work as he’s about to get a prestigious grant that would help his theater company financially as well as be on Broadway. The latter is where Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is about to star in a TV pilot as she once known as an actress of raunchy teen movies as her work in Charlie’s avant-garde plays have given her acclaim yet she wanted to branch out into doing different things.
The first act is about Charlie and Nicole trying to raise their eight-year old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with the latter going to L.A. and live temporarily with her mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty) with Henry living with her. The two try to work out a long-distance relationship with Charlie staying in New York City to get his play on Broadway but Nicole’s series gets picked up and Charlie’s plans for his play with Nicole’s involvement falls by the wayside leaving to problems and Nicole hiring Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) as her divorce attorney. Charlie is taken aback by the news of Nora prompting him to find a lawyer as he hires retired family lawyer Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) who is more about civility as he would be replaced another attorney Charlie met earlier in the brash Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta). Through many legal things and other things that forces Charlie to buy an apartment in Los Angeles, Charlie and Nicole’s desire for civility and making things work start to fall apart as their own faults come into play.
Baumbach’s direction does have elements of style in some of the compositions he creates yet much of his direction is straightforward. Shot on location in New York City and in Los Angeles as they’re both characters in the film. Baumbach does use close-ups and medium shots to play into the characters conversing with one another yet there are also a lot of wide shots for some of the rooms and places they’re in whether it’s Charlie’s L.A. apartment or Nora’s office. Baumbach does use the wide shots to play into this growing dissolution between Charlie and Nicole as well as their own sense of loneliness as they cope with the divorce. The direction has Baumbach emphasize on locations as it play into Charlie being lost in Los Angeles as he doesn’t know much about the city while he has a hard time trying to do things both in New York and in L.A. It’s one of the film’s comical moments as it play into Charlie’s own awkwardness towards L.A. as well as the fact that he always turns to Nicole’s mother for help as she likes Charlie as she doesn’t want to end their relationship.
The direction does intensify as it reaches the third act in the first court case as Baumbach has some unique compositions where it’s Jay and Nora in the foreground while Charlie and Nicole are in the background as Baumbach would use close-ups of Charlie and Nicole to understand what they’re dealing with. Even to the point that they are forced to realize why they broke up and are in this situation during an intensely dramatic scene as it is clear that both of them do love each other but also hate each other. Baumbach maintains that air of realism as well as not being afraid of painting both Charlie and Nicole as flawed people with good intentions as they want what is best for their son and for each other. Overall, Baumbach crafts a compelling and rapturous film about a couple divorcing each other and dealing with an ugly custody battle.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with the usage of low-key colors and lights for some of the scenes in New York City to the more vibrant look of Los Angeles in the daytime with some low-key looks for the scenes at night. Editor Jennifer Lame does excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward with some jump-cuts to play into some of the humor while there’s an inventive montage sequence in the beginning to play into Charlie and Nicole’s notes for each other. Production designer Jade Healy, with set decorators Lizzie Boyle, Nickie Ritchie, and Adam Willis plus art directors Andrew Hull and Josh Petersen, does fantastic work with the look of Charlie and Nicole’s home in New York City as well as the home of Nicole’s mother’s house as well as the apartment that Charlie would live in in Los Angeles. Costume designer Mark Bridges does nice work with the costumes as it is largely casual with the exception of the Halloween costumes Charlie, Nicole, and Henry would wear
Special effects supervisor Joe Pancake and visual effects supervisor Vico Sharabani do terrific work with the look of the design in Charlie’s play as well as in Nicole’s TV pilot as much of the visual effects are minimal as they serve as set-dressing. Sound editor Christopher Scarabosio does superb work with the sound in the way airplanes sound as well as the sound of certain locations that add to the tense atmosphere of the film. The film’s music by Randy Newman is incredible for its somber piano-based score and lush orchestral pieces that play into some of the humor and drama as well as the melancholic tone of the film while music supervisor George Drakoulias provides a fun soundtrack that features mainly bits of instrumental pieces from Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips and Bill Evans along with show tunes that include songs by Stephen Sondheim.
The casting by Douglas Aibel and Francine Maisler is wonderful as it feature some notable small roles from Jasmine Cepha Jones, Mickey Sumner, and Wallace Shawn as actors in Charlie’s theater company, Mark O’Brien as a man Nicole meets late in the film in Carter, Brooke Bloom as Charlie’s theater manager whom he supposedly had a brief tryst with, Rich Fulcher as a judge, and Martha Kelly in a terrific one-scene performance as a court-appointed evaluator who watches Charlie’s time with Henry in an awkwardly-funny scene. Merritt Wever is superb as Nicole’s sister Cassie who is trying to help Nicole out while having a funny moment involving trying to hide the divorce papers for Charlie. Julie Hagerty is fantastic as Nicole’s mother Sandra as a former actress who is trying to maintain peace as she also helps Charlie find a lawyer in the hope to continue her own relationship with Charlie. Azhy Robertson is excellent as Charlie and Nicole’s son Henry as a young boy trying to find his role in the world where he finds joy in Los Angeles while having a hard time trying to understand what his parents are going through.
Alan Alda is brilliant as Bert Spitz as a retired family lawyer Charlie hires as he is a sensible lawyer who had seen a lot as he gives Charlie some advice on what to do and wanting to make it civil as it would play into Charlie’s frustrations. Ray Liotta is amazing as Jay Marotta as an attorney Charlie meets during the first act and eventually hire him as he’s a more ruthless attorney who also provides Charlie some harsh insights about what he is about go through as Liotta provides a lot of energy into his performance. Laura Dern is incredible as Nicole’s attorney Nora Fanshaw as a woman who understand what Nicole is going through but also has to find angles and such while is full of charisma as is it is Dern in one of her best performances of her career.
Finally, there’s the duo of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in phenomenal performances in their respective roles as Charlie and Nicole Barber. Driver provides this element of quirkiness as a man who tends to live in his own head a lot yet is a good father and a good cook as he copes with having to move to Los Angeles to be near his son though he’s a New York person who loves what he does in theater. Johansson’s performance is filled with unique facial mannerisms but also a woman who is becoming melancholic over her marriage but also in what she wants for herself as she tries to find ways to be civil and a good mother to her son. Driver and Johansson together have this amazing chemistry in the way they deal with each other including in an intense argument scene that showcases two people who have a lot to vent but also realize how much they do care each other as it is a major moment for both of them who definitely give career-defining performances.
Marriage Story is an outstanding film from Noah Baumbach that feature sensational performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Along with its ensemble cast, study of divorce and dissolution, gorgeous photography, Randy Newman’s amazing score, and Baumbach’s willingness to showcase the many highs and lows of divorce. It’s a film that is willing to explore a family coming apart but also wanting what is best for a child who is caught in the middle despite the parents’ attempt to be civil and fair. In the end, Marriage Story is a magnificent film from Noah Baumbach.
Noah Baumbach Films: Kicking and Screaming (1995 film) - Highball - Mr. Jealousy - The Squid & the Whale - Margot at the Wedding - Greenberg - Frances Ha - While We're Young - Mistress America - De Palma - The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) - (White Noise (2022 film)) - The Auteurs #41: Noah Baumbach
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