Theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver) and actor Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) navigate a divorce across New York and Los Angeles.
The label of ‘Netflix Original’ for years has had a stigma around it – and perhaps for good reason, as Netflix would seemingly greenlight any number of subpar productions to build up their catalogue. In 2019, much attention was given to the release of The Irishman directed by Martin Scorsese, a film which showed that Netflix could be a platform for auteurs to reach a wider audience.
However, a rather underrated film from a few years before was Noah Baumbach’s 2017 The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (9/10) – a funny and touching story of dysfunctional family and bereavement. Like The Irishman, it showed there is no reason why Netflix can’t be a platform for established artists as opposed to just hacks.
“A saving grace is the universality of divorce”
Now, Baumbach has released his second project under the Netflix banner – Marriage Story. Loosely based on his own divorce, the film seems to run the risk of coming across as self-indulgent. A saving grace is the universality of divorce, with the platitude going that around half of marriages end in it, and Baumbach cited the divorces of his parents and friends as also providing inspiration. Of course, the main defence the film offers for its own existence is the fact that it is a rather charming piece of work. By turns profoundly sad and deeply funny, the tight script provides ample opportunities for the actors to shine.
“By turns profoundly sad and deeply funny, the tight script provides ample opportunities for the actors to shine”
Whilst not the most ostentatious director, Baumbach does display a few neat visual flourishes throughout. The film begins with neat back-to-back montages of small moments in the lives of the couple, accompanied by monologues expounding upon the features that one admires in the other.
This charming sequence is wittily juxtaposed with a scene in a mediator’s office where the two refuse to discuss their feelings. This scene is itself visually interesting, with numerous quick cuts neatly representing the hostile, fractured nature of their relationship at this stage. Throughout the film, it’s interesting to note when Baumbach chooses to cut and when he doesn’t – when the two stars have protracted arguments, he is more inclined to allow the camera to run uninterrupted for longer.
“This scene is itself visually interesting, with numerous quick cuts neatly representing the hostile, fractured nature of their relationship”
One argument in particular is as close as this mostly subtle film can come to feeling contrived. Whilst beginning in a grounded way, by the time both actors are screaming into the camera it can almost feel as though the scene only exists to be played at awards ceremonies. It is to the credit of Driver and Johansson that one is inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. It should be noted that the work of both is brilliant throughout the film, which is a relief to see given how they have been under the thumb of the Disney Corporation in separate franchises for the last several years.
“Johansson particularly has a few moments […] that display a level of depth and skill”
Johansson particularly has a few moments (such as a striking monologue) that display a level of depth and skill that would be unthinkable based only on her appearance in Avengers films. Driver’s performance is less showy (apart from the aforementioned argument) and more subtle, though it works for the character – a director instead of an actor. It’s a nice reminder that he shouldn’t be pigeonholed as only capable of looking glum whilst swinging a lightsaber.
“[Driver] shouldn’t be pigeonholed as only capable of looking glum whilst swinging a lightsaber”
Baumbach also proves himself a great director of actors in the other performances throughout the film. Of note are Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as the couple’s aggressive and conniving lawyers. Julie Hagerty is wonderful as the dreadful ‘stage-mom’ of Nicole, and Wallace Shawn is entertaining as an ageing braggart member of Charlie’s theatre company.
“They work well in service of Baumbach’s creation of a narrative that feels very much based in reality”
These performances all feel very convincing, if at some points slightly exaggerated beyond the point of pure realism. They work well in service of Baumbach’s creation of a narrative that feels very much based in reality: an audience feels for both Nicole and Charlie because it can feel as though they’re real people. Like its protagonists, the film is not perfect and its flaws are apparent under a cynical eye, though ultimately it is a charming, funny, and poignant piece of work.
Marriage Story is now streaming on Netflix.
Featured Image courtesy of Heyday Films and Netflix via IMDb. Image use license found here.
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