Marriage Story was one of the big Oscars contenders this year, and Laura Dern ended up taking home a much-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. My girlfriend, who disliked the film mainly on class war grounds, even admitted she was great. Personally I thought it was Baumbach’s best film since his debut, Kicking & Screaming, but given how bourgeois the characters in the film are, it’s an understandable reaction.
The film is clearly inspired by Baumbach’s own divorce to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, who did read the script, watched the finished film and liked it. Baumbach gives both Adam Driver’s avant-garde theatrical director Charlie Barber and Scarlett Johansson’s actress Nicole Barber equal screen-time in telling their perspective on the marriage during the film’s 137-minute running time. It’s basically a love story about two people getting divorced. This may sound like it’s going to be a serious film, but it is shockingly funny, with a scene involving a pocketknife being particularly funny.
Conflict arises between the two after they have initially tried be amicable when Nicole goes out to L.A. for a TV pilot role and takes their young son with her. She makes the first move, hiring hotshot Hollywood family lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) and spilling her heart out, As you may imagine, Charlie has to get his own lawyer or even lawyers involved, and a nasty custody battle plays out. Nicole says they are an L.A. family, while Charlie maintains they are a New York family.
Laura Dern steals every scene she’s in, but all of the actors have their big scene. Charlie and Nicole have a big dramatic fight in the house he has rented out in L.A., Driver even has scene where he sings a Sondheim number, but as the great as the leads are (and they are), it’s all about the supporting roles. The lawyers for Charlie are the well-meaning but utterly useless and somewhat feeble Bert (Alan Alda) and Jay (Ray Liotta). As you may expect from the star of Something Wild and of course Goodfellas, Liotta plays the hard-ass he needs so he can get something out of the divorce. Wallace Shawn also has small part, and is also a pleasure to see on screen.
If you like those classic Woody Allen films—and Baumbach has certainly taken the baton with his take on mainly New York hipsters with his films—it’s a must. Unlike Allen, he rarely has any understanding of class conflict, whereas when Allen deals with it, it’s generally one of more interesting and better films. However, Greta Gerwig, who is Baumbach’s girlfriend, does understand that dynamic a little bit more, which is why her films are actually better. However, Marriage Story is very funny, provides a real showcase for the actors, and has a very fine score by Randy Newman, which gives it an almost classic movie shine.
This is the second Netflix film in the Criterion Collection. It’s nice to see some of their films getting home video releases through Criterion, even it’s only awards-season stuff so far, I want Dolemite is my Name!
The disc includes various interviews with Baumbach, the actors, Randy Newman, and even a feature-length making-of documentary. The separate ‘Nicole’ and ‘Charlie’ trailers which two of the best-edited trailers in recent years. The booklet includes notes on the film by novelist Linn Ullmann.