Netflix review: 'Marriage Story' lives up to early Oscar hype

Fred Hawson

Posted at Dec 09 2019 08:58 AM

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star in 'Marriage Story'

The title of this film was so simple and straightforward, I might have not have watched yet another movie about a troubled marriage. However, the awards hype that surrounded "Marriage Story" could not be ignored, as it was being hailed left and right as material for best picture, director, and for all four acting categories. When it was released on Netflix last Saturday, I downloaded it right away to watch. 

Charlie Barber was a hotshot indie New York-based theater director whose latest play was on its way to Broadway. The play starred his muse, his wife Nicole, a former film actress who left Hollywood and her rising career to marry Charlie.There was trouble brewing in their marriage and mediation was not working. Nicole decided to leave Charlie to star in a television pilot back in Los Angeles, bringing their 8 year-old son Henry with her.

In the very first sequence, we hear Nicole and Charlie narrating a list of qualities they liked about each other as their happier memories were being shown in flashback. From those scenes alone, you can already feel that this was not going to be an ordinary family drama. 

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The eloquent words and the dynamic style of writer-director Noah Baumbach hit the right spot emotionally from the get-go and would not let up even as the story turned bitter. Charlie and Nicole clearly still loved each other and deciding to split up was causing each one internal turmoil, and these were shown in simple yet powerful scenes. 

Scarlett Johansson played Nicole, a woman who uncovered some damning private correspondence and realized how much of herself she gave up to be Charlie's wife. We have seen Johansson grow up on screen from her breakout role as a damaged teenager in "The Horse Whisperer" (1998), successfully transitioning to adult roles in films like "Lost in Translation" (2003) and my personal favorite "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (2003). Since 2010 to the present, she is well-known as the Black Widow in the MCU films, who has a coming solo film despite her fate in "Avengers: Endgame." Her equally defiant and vulnerable portrayal of Nicole will most likely land her her first Oscar nomination.

At 36, Adam Driver may be older than Johansson by a year in age, but he only started his film career in 2011, which only came after a two-year stint in the US Marine Corp. Critical acclaim for his acting came quickly for Driver, from his Emmy nominations for his breakout role on HBO's "Girls" (2012) to the Oscar nomination for his supporting turn in "BlacKkKlansman" (2018) to a Tony nomination for his lead role in the play "Burn This" (2019). He is now best known as Kylo Ren in the current Star Wars trilogy. Driver's role as Charlie, a proud self-absorbed artistic genius scrambling to save his crumbling home life, is also likely to land him his second Oscar nomination, but this time in the lead category. 

Veteran actors played their lawyers. Laura Dern is courting Oscar attention with her effusive portrayal of Nora Fanshaw, Nicole's lawyer. Alan Alda played Bert Spitz, a old-fashioned fatherly type of lawyer who advocated compromise. Ray Liotta played Jay Marotta an expensive and aggressive hotshot lawyer. These characters showed the circus that ensues once lawyers intervene in what should be an issue between husband and wife. Even the smallest things could be magnified as big faults. Every cent of money will taken into account. (On a side note, I wished Baumbach did not have to include an infidelity angle anymore as that was too obvious of a reason for conflict.)

The first movie I had seen about a divorcing couple battling each other for child custody was "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979). I was still very young then and was yet ignorant about the issues behind divorce, so it was eye-opening for me then that not all marriages last forever. However, watching "Marriage Story" now as a married man and father, hit very close to home, so that tears easily came in certain triggering scenes. It gave me serious pause to appreciate my own wife and what dreams she may have had to hold back to support mine. I wish I could also do enough to support her aspirations. 

As Charlie sang in his version of Sondheim's "Being Alive," being alone is not being alive. We vowed to share our lives through thick and through thin on our wedding day. It won't be perfect all the time, it could even feel like we were put through hell, as the song went. But that "hell" is part of being a living human being, and as husband and wife, we will be there for each other nevertheless.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."