Look beyond the memes and revel in Marriage Story’s vulnerability, craft, and fragmented joy

Bolstered by powerful performances, Marriage Story is devastating and compassionate.

Photo: Wilson Webb / Netflix

By Kate Olivares, Peak Associate

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is joining the ranks of Roma and Mudbound as Netflix’s newest awards contender. The premise is simple: Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) have fallen out of love and have decided to separate. Both characters navigate this process while living in different cities, caring after their son, and trying to keep their family together. As the movie progresses, the realities of a divorce’s legal process and the intimacies of their relationships begin to unravel.

This movie’s magic comes from the relationship between Baumbach and his actors. He often writes roles with specific actors in mind, and Baumbach has shared that Adam Driver was the screenplay’s muse. Also, the supporting cast, including Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, is superb. But of course, the crown jewels are the film’s two leads. Seeing Charlie desperately try to keep his relationship with his son and his professional life afloat allows Driver to show a blinding vulnerability I haven’t seen in his previous work. Johansson as Nicole is fun-loving yet overwhelmed with her situation, a limbo allowing her to breathe life into the story. They spend most of the movie apart, and the audience really gets a chance to understand what Charlie and Nicole are going through, and what leads them to do what they do. 

Since we watch these characters spend so much time apart, the performances are incredibly subtle. The emotion lingers in empty space — the words unsaid, the tears held back. This restraint allows the one fight scene — yes, that fight scene — to maximize its emotional significance. This is a splashy fight scene where everything explodes, which you might recognize from the many memes that have surfaced online. But really it is there to illuminate Driver and Johansson’s gravitas. There is yelling, wall-punching, crying — all the ingredients needed for the internet’s mocking classification as a transparent, grade-A Oscar clip. However. When this scene is properly placed in the context of the understated film, it’s truly powerful and heartbreaking. When you look beyond the (very funny) memes, this scene is one hundred percent earned. 

The first two acts of the movie play the tightrope act of showing both characters compassionately and evenly. The movie doesn’t take sides. You understand each character deeply, which makes watching the divorce all the more painful. However, this compassion for both characters fades away near the end of the narrative. As the movie wraps up, the story slowly but surely becomes Charlie’s story. About Charlie’s loss, his pain, his slow acceptance of his fate. The last act spends most of its time following his character, and gives him two scenes of heart-wrenching emotional catharsis. This was a disappointment. Since the movie really made me fall in love with both characters, it was a shame to see Nicole somewhat fade to the background. 

As a whole, I really recommend this film. Even if you have to emotionally prepare to watch helplessly as a loving marriage unravels before you, it will be worth it.