Marriage Story is bittersweet and sharply humourous


By Lara Ouzounian-Halpin, 3rd Year Film & Television

Marriage Story (2019) is a tender yet humorous tragicomedy that explores the messy and grueling proceedings of a couple going through a divorce.

Baumbach himself recently went through a divorce so it would be easy to assume this story would be one of bitterness and anger. Thankfully Baumbach’s script is one that feels entirely emphatic and compassionate to its two main characters as he delicately examines what happens when two people who were once madly in love lose the ability to communicate with each other.

Marriage Story shows here visibly the victims of Nicole and Charlie's messy divorce | Getty Images / Wilson Webb

The story of Charlie’s (Driver) and Nicole’s (Johansson) married life makes up the opening seven-minute-long monologue in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, as both characters narrate their detailed and heartfelt love letters to each other. They notice all the intimate quirks and charming habits their partners have, a plethora of moments only people this deeply in love would ever know or understand about each other.

The nostalgia tinged romanticisms are painfully brought back to reality as it’s revealed these letters were part of Charlie’s and Nicole’s couples therapy. Charlie offers to read his letter out loud but Nicole, somewhat sheepishly and arrogantly refuses to partake. The arguing begins.

Something Baumbach has always excelled at is sharply observing the humour in life no matter how awkward or tragic it might be

Their voices now belong to their divorce lawyers played with sharp ruthlessness by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta. As someone who loved Dern’s Renata Klein in Big Little Lies (2017-2019), seeing her give another fantastic performance as a fierce, condescending and so brilliantly insufferable character was such a joy to watch. The lawyers serve as such sharp contrasts to the kind and sweet natures of their clients and their aim-for-the-throat strategy is what ultimately transforms Charlie and Nicole’s love into spite and hatred.

Nicole and Charlie's friction is tangible throughout | IMDb / Netflix

The breakdown of communication is one of Baumbach’s key focuses in Marriage Story. Both parties initially want a friendly separation, no aggression, no dirty tactics no ill harm. It’s a utopian view that was too idealistic to ever happen.

As formalities and legal bureaucracy come into play, any hope they had for walking away from this divorce unscathed and on good terms is instantly crushed by the cold winner-takes-it-all attitude of their lawyers. With parties speaking only through their legal teams their inability to see eye-to-eye and understand each other gets worse and worse.

But in those rare moments where Nicole and Charlie are together as simply themselves, Driver’s and Johansson’s performances along with Baumbach’s script allow that initial intimacy of those opening 7 minutes to shine through.

In one especially tender moment amidst the legal battles Nicole invites Charlie into her mother’s house to cut his hair like she used to when they were married. It’s a sweet moment, emphasized by Randy Newman’s melancholic score and Driver and Johansson performing with an air of innocence. The tension, anger and toxicity of their divorce is forgotten and all that exists is this perfect picture of simplistic domestic bliss.

Any hope they had for walking away from this divorce unscathed and on good terms is instantly crushed

Truly the brilliance of this film comes from Adam Driver’s exceptional and magnetic performance. He manages to balance the fine line between love and hatred in such a controlled manner until it culminates into an explosive 12-minute argument that is so filled to the brim with pain and regret, all of which we can hear in the shake of his voice, it’ll leave you heartbroken and lost at how it all could have gone so wrong.

Driver particularly transforms this exceptional piece to the next level | IMDb / Netflix

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Something Baumbach has always excelled at, especially in his previous feature The Meyerowitz Stories (2017), is sharply observing the humour in life no matter how awkward or tragic it might be.

Marriage Story is a masterful tragicomedy that fully understands the complexity and awkwardness of human emotions. It’s with those earnest moments that the film manages to maintain its emphatic angle, refusing to portray either side as the villain, making it impossible to walk away from this film hoping for anything other than pure happiness for them both.

Featured: IMDb / Netflix

Does Marriage Story's tragicomic love story resonate with you?