CHRIS MILLER FILM REVIEW: A heartbreaking yet hopeful story about divorce

I have luckily never directly experienced divorce. My parents have been together for more than 30 years and I have yet to be married.

But I would imagine people who have been touched by divorce will have quite a bit to say about director Noah Baumbach’s explosive new critically-acclaimed film “Marriage Story,” which is out on Netflix. 

The movie is an intimate examination of love falling apart. It’s equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful, a film that will likely stay on the minds of viewers long after it ends. 

Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are an artistic couple living in Brooklyn. Charlie is a successful theater director while Nicole, a former teenage movie star, is one of his actors. Though they’ve experienced a happy marriage — each lists the things they love about the other in the opening montage at the urging of a mediator, both Charlie and Nicole have drifted apart for a myriad of different reasons. They each must navigate a new world without the other while also taking care of their 8-year-old son, Henry.

Nicole and Henry quickly move to Los Angeles to be closer to her mother and sister, creating one of the chief tensions in the movie — Charlie yo-yoing back and forth from New York to Los Angeles, trying to juggle his professional life while also making sure to to create a stable environment for Henry. 

Nicole and Charlie inevitably get divorce lawyers (Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta) and accusations and recriminations are dropped on one another. A scene inside the courthouse is especially heated, with both of the couples’ lawyers trying to weaponize the supposed transgressions of the other. 

In one of the most emotional and riveting scenes I’ve witnessed in a movie in years, a friendly conversation between Nicole and Charlie’s devolves into a tear-filled shouting match. As the scene progresses, each seems to be landing increasingly more powerful verbal blows onto the other. 

“Life with you was joyless,” Charlie yells at Nicole, with her eventually answering back: “You’re so merged with your own selfishness, you don’t even identify it as selfishness anymore.”

As the severity of the insults increase, the camera gradually zooms in on Charlie and Nicole’s faces, blotting out the rest of the background and turning the viewer into a sort of active participant in the drama unfolding before them. 

After Nicole and Charlie have verbally bludgeoned each other, the scene ends with Charlie violently punching a wall and then, trembling and crying, falling to the floor, with Nicole comforting him by rubbing his back. Even in such great pain, agony and confusion, love still can find its way through. 

In my mind, it’s the best acted movie of the year and will likely garner multiple Academy Award nominations. The film was nominated for six Golden Globe awards, including for Best Screenplay, Best Motion Picture-Drama and Best Actress in a Supporting Role, which Laura Dern won.

What makes “Marriage Story” so effective is its brutal and unsparing honesty when it comes to divorce. Parents can break up, fight and even yell horrible insults at each other, yet at the same time, a part of them can still love and care for the other. Though people separate, it doesn’t mean that the love that was fostered has to necessarily come to an end. 

The other great thing about the film is its commitment to exploring the complexities of both Nicole and Charlie, without implicitly asking the audience to sympathize with one over the other. Baumbach works to be fair to both spouses, giving each credible arguments for wanting to leave the relationship. His overarching idea seems to be that during a divorce, there are simply no clear-cut good guys or bad guys, there are just two people hurting and trying to figure out how to best pick up the broken pieces of their lives and mend them the best way possible.

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