A recurring problem within many films today is tone, or the inconsistent nature of it. A film can be consistently serious and then in a moment change course with a forced comedy break. Quirky indie dramas especially are prone to this, and I feel director Noah Baumbach has been no stranger to this issue in the past, particularly on his last look into divorce in The Squid and The Whale. Admittedly I went into his latest film, Marriage Story with the same expectation and thankfully, I was proven to be very wrong.
Baumbach’s inspiration for the film came from his own experience and interviewing several of his friends who had also divorced. Our leads are two unique characters who believably may have been a perfect couple once but who have, understandably growing apart.
Charlie and Nicole are both clearly eyeing two different lives but have one shared need: to connect with their son and be a part of his life. Unfortunately, what they find is that the divorce process is not one that will work fairly for both of them. Baumbach understands and handles this a the delicate subject that it truly is. There’s a line between brutal realism and overly dramatic scenes that some directors step over. Here, Baumbach walks that line with finesse.
Charlie, played by Adam Driver, is more held back in his emotions. Clearly happy whenever he’s around people he loves but isn’t as open with how he feels and far from talkative. Nicole, played by Scarlett Johannson, is an actress who’s emotions are more shared and who desires a closer connection with Charlie while still pursuing her dreams. Both actors give different performances and capture their characters’ respective traits. Everything from facial expressions to movement and dialogue is diverse and accurately reflect the scene. Something as simple as how fast a character talks compared to another makes a world of difference in this film. It applies to the supporting cast as well. Whether they are concerned family members, friends or even the divorce lawyers, all show true talent here.
The emotional qualities of the film is where it really shines. The two locations in Los Angeles and New York are representative of our characters’ traits and personalities. It showcases Charlie’s struggle to grow with his son while working. It’s Nicole’s balance between career and her personal life. DOP Robbie Ryan shoots on film and gives some gorgeous lighting and framing to differentiate the two locations. Unfortunately, Randy Newman’s score feels inappropriately light-hearted and out of place in its tone. That is the only major criticism I have.
Noah Baumbach has outdone himself here. His direction and screenplay combined with the performances has brought what may be the most emotionally raw film he’s made yet. It’s rare to see a film where everyone is at their best. You’ll be hearing a lot about this film in the upcoming awards season and for good reason.