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Noah Baumbach finally hits his stride in “Marriage Story”

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For me at least, Noah Baumbach’s career has been a source of intense frustration. Though he’s been active for nearly two and a half decades, the majority of Baumbach’s notable work has come to fruition in the fourteen years following the 2005 release of his Oscar-nominated The Squid and the Whale. That movie, like nearly all of his others, follows a group of middle to upper-middle class artistically-minded individuals in New York as they experience various issues. It’s cleverly written, wonderfully acted, and fundamentally unexciting.

Baumbach successfully created a legion of white, generally well-off, liberal New Yorkers to be used as players on his cinematic stage. This isn’t necessarily a huge problem, but it encapsulates so much of what keeps his good films from being great: the stakes are so low. His characters are in danger of so little and certainly have therapists to help with whatever is going on in their lives. Their problems are only ever fully comprehensible for an impossibly small sliver of the population. Until now, Baumbach’s films sometimes seem a bit more like snow-globes than actual movies.

Fun fact: even married couples are forced to avoid eye contact on the subway

Though he doesn’t fully shed this skin for his newest feature Marriage Story, he does give it far greater depth than ever before. The film follows the divorce of esteemed theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and mid-tier actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson)—two characters fairly far removed from typical reality, but they’re so meticulously crafted by every aspect of the film’s construction that this becomes easy to forgive. I left the film with a deep understanding of each character’s desires, sense of humor, shames, prides, and so much more.

The films demonstrates to the audience all of these qualities against the backdrop of a separation that starts off relatively clean before spiraling out of the control of both leads. Marriage Story perfectly demonstrates the way that ferocious lawyers (caricatures played admirably by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta) plow over the humans at the heart of a collapsing marriage without becoming preachy. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the gentle-hearted lawyer played by Alan Alda who wishes the best for both parties but fails to truly fight for his client as a result. Alda’s performance is beautifully human, and it gives the entire process an additional level of heartbreak.

Baumbach’s steady hand brings the audience through hurt and humor and back again in a way that most other directors would turn into a case of whiplash. We laugh with the characters as much as we laugh at them, and their pains becomes ours along the way. Driver and Johansson give predictably astounding performances, though I will emphasize (as the film does) Driver in particular. That is a man who knows how to feel.

Who’s that Pokemon?

As with so many films of its kind, Marriage Story does struggle to find an ending. The story of emotional entanglement between Charlie and Nicole is one that feels eternal, and that’s a hard thing to roll credits over. The film’s final fifteen minutes see some concluding clichés rear their ugly heads after two hours bereft of any at all, and it does sour the Randy Newman-performed outro a bit.

The second the movie finishes, however, you’re reminded of the heft of what you’d just witnessed. Marriage Story represents that rare kind of film where stars seem more like their characters than they do themselves. The characters of Nicole and Charlie are so powerful because they aren’t — they both have our flaws and our triumphs, just rearranged for the screen. This must be Baumbach’s most personal film, and it’s his most universal at the same time. Whether you view it is a study of love gone awry or a parable against matrimony, this movie will hit you. Not necessarily when you’re watching it — but when you’ve realized that you’re in it.

Marriage Story

HIGHLIGHTS: Pretty much every performance, the humor, the editing, the dialogue

LOWLIGHTS: More focus on Charlie than Nicole in a film that seems to thrive in its neutrality, a botched landing.

VERDICT: A-



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