‘Marriage Story’ NYFF review — Now processing heartbreak

Marriage Story follows an actress and her director husband as they go through a messy bicoastal divorce.

One-sentence review: Marriage Story is a heartbreaking but funny and entertaining sendup of marriage, divorce, and what it means to be a couple.

Details: 🎬 Noah Baumbach // 🇺🇸 U.S. // ⏳ 136 minutes

The cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta

Where to watch Marriage Story: In theaters November 6th. Streaming on Netflix December 6th.

I just went through a breakup. A breakup of my first and only major relationship, one that I was in for nearly five years. There’s so much sadness and anger and denial and grief. However, the overwhelming feeling is confusion. It’s not hyperbolic to say it feels like you’re going to die. Well, maybe that is hyperbolic. At the very least, there’s a constant sense of dread. You ask yourself so many questions. Am I making the right decision for me? How about for him? Should I have fought harder? Is he going to be alright? Those are the things that are the hardest to process. And like many people, I use movies and music to help understand my feelings. 

So, it’s interesting that the thesis of writer/director Noah Baumbach‘s latest film Marriage Story is delivered via two numbers from the classic musical Company — one of my favorites of all time. The first features Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) — along with her mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty) and sister Cassie (Merritt Weaver) — singing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” In the song, the three women that the main character Robert is seeing sing in an Andrews sisters-style number about his inability to commit.

The second is Sandra’s ex-husband Charlie (Adam Driver) singing “Being Alive” in the middle of a bar surrounded by the theater company he founded with Sandra. The song, which is the final number of the musical, sees Robert finally accepting the notion of love and commitment. In particular, the challenges that come along with that. The song is a moment of acceptance in both the movie and the musical. In the musical, it’s about being able to accept love and all the things that make it complicated. In Marriage Story, the song is about the acceptance that sometimes love isn’t enough. 

New York vs. Los Angeles: A battle of desires

The movie begins with Charlie talking about what he loves about Nicole, which plays over a montage of the couple’s life in happier times with their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Then, the movie switches to Nicole’s perspective as she talks about what she loves about Charlie. In so many ways, what they admire about each other are in opposition to each other as is often the case with couples. That’s why they work. The decision to start the movie on this note is brilliant as it shows the deep care they have for each other. They’ll question it throughout, but we know its there. 

There are these moments where they’re speaking in their Brooklyn apartment like things are normal, then one of them walks away and immediately begins crying. It’s the death of the normalcy that’s the hardest. However, things are changing for the pair. Nicole is heading to Los Angeles to star in a TV pilot while Charlie is hard at work on his latest play with the theater company. They decide that Henry will temporarily stay with Nicole in LA while she’s filming and Charlie will fly back and forth.

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johanson in Marriage Story. Credit: Netflix.

Nicole took the pilot because for once she wanted to do something truly for herself. The two met in their 20s. Young, free, artistic, and ready to take on the world. She had a promising career in film as hinted by with a clip from her breakout role in the teen romance “All Over the Girl,” but after falling for Charlie she flew across the country to be at the center of his theater company. She always had yearnings of returning to LA and even discussed it with Charlie, which he’d placate her with “one day” and “in the future.”

However, Charlie has never been able to see past his own grand vision for life. “We’re a New York family,” as he often said during the divorce proceedings when they really get rough. However, their son Henry says he likes LA and Nicole’s TV pilot looks like it might be going to series — still, what he thinks is right for the family is for them all to be in New York. It perpetuates the reason Nicole wanted to split up in the first place — this is Charlie’s life, she’s just living in it. 

Divorces have to get ugly before they get better

After it becomes clear that Charlie won’t accept the family moving across the country, Nicole hires celebrity divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) to represent her. Dern is an absolute knockout in the role of a woman whose understanding of relationships and the male psyche would better suit her as a therapist. However, her veracity also makes her the perfect lawyer. She explains to Nicole that hiring her isn’t a shot across the bow, but a claiming of her own wants and desires as her own. 

Charlie is shocked by the decision as he’s hilariously served papers in a standout scene by Nicole’s sister Cassie. He sees it as a shot across the bow. He even says it feels like the divorce is happening to him — another indication that he just doesn’t get it. 

From here, the movie devolves into a series of messy arguments and tactics in an attempt to get each side what they want. And at every turn, it feels like Charlie is losing — he can’t use a specific lawyer because Nicole already consulted with them, he needs to establish residence in LA to be close to his son but needs to maintain one in New York to prove they’re a “New York family.”

This is a movie about the process of divorce and how messy it is — morally and legally. At one point, Dern’s Nora and Charlie’s lawyer Jay (Ray Liotta) go up against each other in court by twisting things Nicole and Charlie have said about each other in increasing preposterous ways to smear the other’s reputation. It highlights the need for a divorce to be messy to actually work. In the case of Charlie and Nicole, it’s a wakeup call. 

It’s a man’s world

Charlie is obsessed with saying what he thinks is right for other people. I mean, he’s a director after all — that just bleeds into his own life too. Despite all indications pointing to LA being the right place for their son to grow up — hilariously, characters always remark at how much space there is in LA — Charlie is insistent that they need to be in New York because he wants to be in New York. He just disguises it as what he thinks is best for them. 

Scarlett Johanson, Azhy Robertson, and Adam Driver in Marriage Story. Credit: Netflix.

As Nora delivers in a fiery monologue, we live in a society where women are meant to bend their desires to men and whatever they deem comfortable. Even Nicole’s mom seemingly sides with Charlie because of her old-fashioned view of things. For once, Nicole is doing something for herself, and in Charlie’s view that makes her the bad guy. In our view too. The movie is largely told from Charlie’s perspective, so our sympathies automatically lie with him. Then, Baumbach pulls the rug out from under us and reminds us that we’re so immeshed in these societal expectations that we don’t even realize why we’re thinking in that way. 

The only way to get over sadness is to go through it

However, it’s called Marriage Story for a reason. Except, instead of the making of a marriage, it’s the breaking of one. Like I said at the beginning, as messy as the actual logistics of it are, it’s the emotional gymnastics that we have to do to get through it that’s that hardest. 

I’ve been trying so hard to convince myself that I’m going to be alright in my breakup — and that he would be alright. And we both will be, but not right away. Maybe it will take weeks, months, or even years to get over it. To get over the emotional ties that we have to each other. There hasn’t been a day that I’ve woken up feeling utterly alone and just crave the normalcy we once had. But that’d be unfair. 

Like Nicole and Charlie, we met each other at a specific time in life. One where we were still forming who we are. The sad fact of the matter is that it changes with time. Your wants and desires clear up, your lifestyle comes into focus, and that causes rifts. There are some that you should bend for and some you shouldn’t. It’s so hard to be honest about them, but in the long run you’re only causing more hurt if you continue to ignore them. 

Nicole realizes that. Society taught her to not want, but she slowly realizes that she’s allowed to. Charlie doesn’t realize that. His nature tells him he’s doing the right thing for his family. Those final two songs from Company tell us exactly where they are in emotional maturity. Nicole is past acceptance and Charlie is just getting there. He gets there when he is finally able to be sad and angry about what’s going on. Because the only way to get over it is to go through it. 

Marriage Story brings us through it, unveils truths about ourselves and society, and does it in a funny and entertaining way. It’s a nearly impossible feat to make a 136-minutes movie about a divorce entertaining, but it is. The process is inherently silly and the things we do make no sense. The way people around us react doesn’t help, but it just exposes truths about life — it’s consistently inconsistent. As messy and devastating as the process of breaking up is, it makes you feel alive. Maybe it’s a good thing in the long run. 

Hi, I’m Karl 👋 Follow me on Twitter and Letterboxd! I’m also a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes 🍅