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The Independent Critic

Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta
Noah Baumbach
Rated R
136 Mins.

 "Marriage Story" Screens at 2019 Heartland Film Fest 
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There's always that moment. 

If you were to look back on all the break-ups you've ever had in your life, and in my case that's quite a few, in almost every single case you'd be able to look back and remember that one point when you knew the relationship was over. 

Oh sure, most relationships don't end over one single, solitary thing. But, it seems like more often than not there's something that finally triggers the break-up. 

An incident. 

A want. 

A need.

A desire. 

A trauma. 

It could be anything, but it's always something. 

In my last serious relationship, I remember the day clearly when I knew our relationship had ended even though we wouldn't officially break-up for another 3-4 months. 

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but in my case it was one single, solitary word. 


Admit it. You flinched. I did. I still do everytime I think of the word. It's a word I'd never used before THAT one day. It's a word I've never used again. 

It's a word I'd have sworn I would never used. 

Yet, it was a word I used. Even worse, I used the word as a weapon. 

I knew. She knew it. We both knew it. We also both knew in that very moment that a relationship that had started off with such passion and promise had downward spiraled into the flaming pits of relationship hell. 

I apologized, of course. In fact, I apologized almost immediately. It was too late. I knew it. There are certain things you can't do or say in a relationship. They're different in every relationship, of course, but in this relationship that was a line I knew better to cross and I crossed it. 

The relationship was over. 

We didn't break up over that word, of course. The break-up had been building over time, little differences becoming huge chasms and, if we were to both be honest, we'd both already begun replacing our long lost affection in different ways both healthy and not so healthy. 

Strangely enough, she and I are friends now. Time has healed a good amount of the woundedness and we've found a comfortable place where our friendship and professional respect for one another can prosper and even, at least to a certain degree, feel safe. I'm rarely prone to anger and I can comfortably say I've never even raised my voice to her again.

There are days I miss her. 

Okay, there are days I miss the sex. I can't lie. It was amazing. She was the first, and probably the last, woman I've ever dated whom I truly believed loved me physically and she worked hard as hell to be safe for someone who doesn't particularly like physical intimacy. 

I miss that. I miss her intelligence. I miss her laugh. I miss the bond she had with her kids. I miss watching her nurture those she worked with and I miss her absolute ability to be present with someone even in their darkest moments. 

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story is a quiet little masterpiece, a strange amalgam of melancholy meets humor as a coping skill that's not always pleasant to watch yet is so comfortable and immersive that it fits like another lay of skin. 

In Marriage Story, divorce becomes the consummate equalizer. Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) don't love each other anymore, though they once did. Baumbach never lets us forget either fact. 

There are people, of course, who manage to travel through the journey of divorce unscathed; I'm not talking about a Gwyneth Paltrow/Chris Martin "conscious uncoupling" so much. I just think that there are some couple who've traveled their journey of anger and grief and loss and hurt long before they actually sign the divorce papers. 

For most of us, including Charlie and Nicole, divorce causes us to become versions of ourselves we don't particularly recognize and don't really want to recognize. 

It may be important to note that Marriage Story isn't a film about divorce. If that's what you're expecting, then you'll likely find it more than a little disappointing. 

Marriage Story is a film about Charlie and Nicole. 

Charlie is an ultra-competitive theatre director with immense talent and relentless discipline. He eats his food like it's going to be his last meal. He loves his son. He's made some bad choices in his relationship. He's mostly a good guy, but he's a flawed one. 

Nicole is immensely loyal to her family. She loves theatre, but not in that "I'd never do television kind of way." She wants to do television and, in fact, it's that desire to do television that becomes the "moment" when her marriage to Charlie becomes broken beyond repair. She listens to strangers. And listens. And listens. Oh yeah, and she also loves her son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). 

There's never a moment when the semi-autobiographical Marriage Story becomes anything other than a story about Charlie and Nicole, so if you end up not caring for either one then Marriage Story may become interminable.

That's difficult to imagine happening, though, considering both Driver and Johansson do career-best work here and create such memorable, complex, and fully realized human beings that it's as hard for us to hate either one of them as it is for Charlie and Nicole to love one another. 

That's hard. 

Baumbach infuses his script with brief glimpses of humor, not distractions but those little shimmers of light and breath that we always seem to find in our most difficult moments in life. 

You remember that ex I was talking about? Sometimes when we're together she'll look at me and softly chuckle while saying "I still can't believe you called me that. Really? Our first fight and you pull out the "C" word?" 

I'm an overachiever.

By the time Nicole heads out to L.A. to shoot a pilot with Henry in tow, Charlie finally catches on that this break-up is different from the other break-ups. He goes out for his obligatory visit and gets served the papers. Suddenly, the fragile co-existence that once was becomes an increasingly fractured battle for dignity and control and power and, oh yeah, Henry. 

You may be tempted to pick a side, but Baumbach's script makes that difficult. Charlie and Nicole are both angel and devil, guilty and innocent. 

They're human. They loved each other. Until they didn't. 

While Marriage Story is very much a two-person film, it is about Charlie and Nicole after all, Baumbach's attention to detail is strong here and even the bit players leave a strong impression. Merritt Wever, Ray Liotta, and Wallace Shawn all have their moments when they remind us of their greatness. Alan Alda? He's actually kind of mind-blowing as Bert Spitz, a three-times divorced attorney who desperately wants to create something different for Charlie and Nicole. Laura Dern continues to lay claim to being one of Hollywood's most under-appreciated actresses. She takes bit parts and owns them and transforms films for the better and she's done the same thing here. 

Baumbach has always had a gift for telling this kind of story, 2005's The Squid and the Whale comes to mind most vividly, yet his work here is more self-assured, less defensive, and more complex than anything he's ever done. I'd dare say that even 10-15 years ago, Baumbach would have taken sides here. 

Baumbach doesn't take sides. He loves both Charlie and Nicole equally. He also hates Charlie and Nicole equally. 

He understands. 

Marriage Story is a film I loved, though I'm not sure it's a film I'll ever feel the need to revisit again. It reminded me often of that last serious relationship of mine, a relationship a good ten years in my rear view mirror yet a relationship I still remember with vivid moments of embarrassment and exhilaration. 

It was the best of times and the worst of times. The great equalizer, I guess you could say.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic