By Nick Boyd.
The family melodrama “Marriage Story,” a heartbreaking and bittersweet look at a marriage in disarray, stars Adam Driver (as Charlie) and Scarlett Johansson (as Nicole) at their most vulnerable. The couple has an eight-year-old son named Henry who is caught in the middle of his divorcing parents who still care about each other.
As the movie begins, a mediator has husband and wife describe the other’s strengths and what they find endearing about the other. Charlie has no problem doing this, while Nicole thinks that it would be a waste of time and walks out.
Charlie finds his passion as director of a local theater production company in New York, while Nicole acts in his productions. When Nicole, though, is offered the starring role in a television pilot in Los Angeles, she decides to leave Charlie behind and take their son with her, temporarily staying at her mother’s house. This decision catches Charlie off-guard and makes him realize that Nicole is serious about both a career and a marital change.
The film really gets into the ins-and-outs of divorce proceedings and child custody battles and benefits from the insights that it provides into marital relations. Laura Dern superbly plays Nora, Nicole’s divorce lawyer, exuding warmth and empathy towards Nicole. She also has a relentless personality and is willing to expose any faults that Charlie may have. The first lawyer that Charlie seeks out is Jay, played by Ray Liotta. Jay is the kind of slick and ridiculously expensive lawyer, the pitbull type that Charlie initially finds off-putting.
He sees a marked improvement in Bert, played with gentleness and humor by Alan Alda, who seems to actually show an interest in what Charlie is going through and his predicament. Charlie says something to the effect of “I wish all lawyers were like this.” Liotta and Alda both nail the contrasting personalities of their characters.
The film is ultimately carried by the work that Driver and Johansson do, a couple that even in the midst of all the turmoil still have feelings for each other and show it from time to time. Both performances are moving and raw, letting us see into the hurt within each individual. Rather than taking sides (one has an affair and one takes their child across the country away from the other), we find ourselves rooting for both of them to somehow survive the unraveling of their marriage.
One performance that did not work was that of Johansson’s mom Sandra, played by Julie Hagerty. While it is clear that Driver shares a genuine closeness with his mother-in-law, her character came across as over the top and silly. Also, a scene in which Driver’s character is to be served with divorce papers by Johansson’s sister was overdone.
While uncomfortable to watch at times, the acting and writing in “Marriage Story” make the narrative soar.
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