Happy Holidays: “Marriage Story” is a really sad story of divorce

Marriage Story (Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver) – With five Golden Globe nominations already, Marriage Story is misnamed. It’s really Divorce Story, the disintegration of a marriage between two thespians whose lives are in a downward spiral despite or because of their impending success.

In a very “talky” script by writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star as Nicole and Charlie. He is a director trying to work his way to Broadway through his own theater company. She is the best actress in the troupe. As we find out, it was love at first sight … or was it? They did avant-garde plays together, got married and had an adorable son. As the movie opens, we hear them talk about what they love about each other. Soon it becomes apparent that all is not well off-Broadway.

He is taking his play to the Great White Way but not with her because she got a part in a TV sitcom back in her hometown, Los Angeles. He hates LA; she is not willing to put her career on hold for his Broadway dreams. The only things they clearly agree on is that they both love their son and that they both want each other to succeed.

As the two hours and 17 minutes drone on, she decides that she may have never loved him, never had the space she needed to grow, and feels stuck in New York while her heart is back in La-La-Land. He just loves directing, adores New York, and enjoys the struggles of the theater and the possibility of residencies and grant money that he can pour back into his theater company. Irreconcilable, she wants to break free, hires a shark of a lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), and we’re off. He picks his own expensive lawyer, Bert (Alan Alda), who seems more grandfather than fighter, and eventually switches to slick Jay (Ray Liotta), who is a high-priced street fighter. It all gets very ugly, the way most show business divorces apparently do.

The uniqueness of this story, I suppose, is that these two people don’t want to be fighting each other. They really care for each other. But their career circumstances just make life together impossible. But regardless of their ongoing love, their lives (particularly his) are torn apart. There is one memorable and incredibly long monologue that Johansson delivers beautifully to Dern. And there is one incredible scene between Scarlett and Adam that almost makes the film worth the 137 minutes.

There is little happy about this film. To Baumbach’s credit, his rapid-fire dialogue is reminiscent of Woody Allen but not nearly as neurotic, funny or ironic. Both actors make the most of the wordy script. For the audience, the joy is watching the supporting cast. What could be better than seeing veterans like Alda, Liotta, Dern and Julie Haggerty (who plays Nicole’s spacy mom)?

This Netflix film moved right to streaming video while opening in limited release to qualify for Oscar season, following the lead of Roma and Mudbound from the last couple of years as well as The Irishman, The Two Popes, The Report and Laundromat this year. So, as long as you are paying for Netflix, you might as well watch Marriage Story.

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