Writer-director Noah Baumbach has created, in MARRIAGE STORY, the best Woody Allen film since the late 1980s. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about a director so closely replicating the technique of another even if it's a technique I so admire and it's done so well. But if I push that slight queasiness to one side, I have to admit that MARRIAGE STORY is one of the most authentic, heartfelt and beautifully acted relationship dramas I've seen in some time, and I hope that Baumbach, Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern are duly reward with award nominations.
The story is a deeply personal and relatable one. It's based on Noah Baumbach's own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, and acted by Scarlett Johansson in the midst of her own divorce. Two fundamentally decent good people find they cannot live together anymore. The husband - a theatre director - feels that his wife, his star actress - has cooled sexually, resents her for his having been married and faithful in his prime, and so has an affair. The wife resents the fact that her career has been subsumed into his, that he so steadfastly considers them a New York family when she wants to go back to LA, that she's never given the chance to direct. In the most trenchant line of the film, her lawyer points out that when he wants something it's a debate, but when she wants something it's just a discussion.
They begin the divorce process hoping not to involve lawyers. They have precious little money to split - the only real contention is custody and specifically where their primary home will be - are they a New York or LA family. But as she files for divorce when shooting a pilot in LA, as her kid was born in LA, he's in school there while she shoots the pilot, it all seems to go in her favour. Moreover, she hires a no-nonsense cut-throat lawyer played by Laura Dern, while he hires a decent lawyer played by Alan Alda. This all winds through - we get an absolutely superb, unrelenting, vicious, heart-wrenching, set piece argument - and the case is settled. The irony being that if he'd agree to just spend a year in LA in the first place they might never have gotten divorced in the first place.
I really love this film. There's something so honest about their mutual resentments, about her need to break free, about his complete lack of awareness.... There's also something so tragically well-observed in how the expensive lawyers think it's all about victory, and are actually social friends outside of the courtroom, and don't really care about the clients at all. There's a wonderful moment of subtle acting near the end when her lawyer has managed to squeeze out another concession from him, but a concession she even wanted, and when the lawyer says "you won!" you can see her wince.
This is Scarlett Johansson operating at a level we haven't seen before - establishing herself as a truly gifted and mature actress. And in combination with her surprisingly tragicomic, charismatic performance in JOJO RABBIT - this truly is her year. And I guess I'm overall pleased that someone is giving us complicated adult dramas of the calibre of late 80s Woody Allen, even if it isn't Woody himself.
MARRIAGE STORY has a running time of 136 minutes and is rated R. The film played Venice, Telluride, Toronto and London. It will get a limited theatrical release in November before being released on Netflix on December 6th.