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“Marriage Story” unites comedy, drama, and subjectivity

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Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” is a simple concept — even the title has a storybook-ish quality — with incredible execution.

Nicole met Charlie, and both were swept off their feet. They loved each other very much, and they still do. But years later and with a young child, their goals no longer align, and they’re getting a divorce. Naturally, it becomes more complicated than that — the subjectivity of both stories becomes essential to why “Marriage Story” works.

At first, it’s struggling but passionate film actor Nicole (Scarlett Johanssen) who leaves Hollywood to join intense but charming emerging theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) in New York. Then it’s committed and driven director Charlie who meets aimless and messy actor Nicole, and after they fall in love, Charlie helps Nicole achieve the heights of success through his own achievement-filled career. Or is it promising actor Nicole who gives up everything for love to promote the career of self-obsessed director Charlie? Or perhaps it’s talented director Charlie who meets equally-talented actor Nicole in LA, and they start an amazing joint career and life together in New York where they both save each other.

This is an infinite-sided story with no objective truth. While the bulk of the film swaps us back and forth between Nicole and Charlie’s legal proceedings — despite having “agreed we wouldn’t use lawyers!” — Baumbach carefully unwraps the story layer by layer. It’s up to the viewer to decide who they want to side with, if anyone — or if it’s even right to pick.

Baumbach soars from peak drama to peak comedy and back again in multiple scenes throughout the film. The bulk of the humor primarily comes from the film’s comedic relief: Laura Dern as a delightfully obnoxious and vicious lawyer (à la her character in HBO’s “Big Little Lies”), while the drama stems from a career best for Driver. Although Driver is committedly stoic in most of the film, Baumbach really does use him to the best of his acting ability when the ex-couple’s story reaches its emotional breaking point. Johanssen is an unlikely pairing for Driver, but it works — she becomes his foil and complement while still remaining the recognizable star that she is; Driver is the one who transforms into his character and truly shines. 

Baumbach is a commander of the psyche and fulfills an impossible, yet ultimately human, desire — the opportunity to really see both sides of the story. Yet, of course, it’s really impossible to be truly impartial. I’m still questioning whether the glimmer of hope I saw throughout the film was truly there, whether it’s Baumbach’s doing or that of my own mind.

However, ”Marriage Story” is also a very gray film — and by that, I mean literally. It’s about the plainness of human life and attempts to make something of it all, mirrored in its cinematography and simple coloring. Grays, whites and beiges litter the color palette, coupled with a slight graininess that merely serves as a complement to the narrative; you’re not meant to notice it because it’s simply all about the titular story.

I’ll admit it, I’ve yet to watch “Frances Ha” — Noah Baumbach’s 2012 film critically lauded as a masterpiece created with his equally, if not even more acclaimed, real-life partner Greta Gerwig in the title role (and co-writer spot). But if “Marriage Story” says anything, it’s that Baumbach is a writer-director with an excellent grasp of portraying the minutiae of deceivingly simple real-life conflict on-screen.

Nicole and Charlie both help and hurt each other more than they could ever know. This is a story about the consequences of not communicating, and when the characters finally do, it’s groundbreaking — a devastating emotional high that you can feel in your seat. “Marriage Story” is a slow burn that’s worth the wait, meandering without ever losing sight of its core conflict where both characters don’t know what they’re doing, but can no longer lean on each other for support. Nevertheless, while Nicole and Charlie’s love and struggles start and end with each other, perhaps so does their salvation.

“Marriage Story” will have a limited theatrical release in the U.S. starting Nov. 6 and will be released on Netflix on Dec. 6.
Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Olivia Popp '21 is a self-proclaimed TV junkie who previously served as Managing Editor of Arts & Life for two years. She has covered shows for Tell-Tale TV and TV Fanatic, and she enjoys writes about all things film, TV, theatre, and entertainment. Currently, she is abroad in Germany, which is why you might find her writing about an eclectic collection of content. Contact Olivia at oliviapopp 'at' stanford.edu with TV recs or new flavors of barbecue sauce (truly!). Find her on Twitter: @itsoliviapopp.