Who knew that arguably both the best war film and best comedy of 2019 would be a divorce drama?
“Marriage Story” follows a divorcing couple (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), and the struggles they face while going through the process from different sides of the country. Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Azhy Robertson, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever also star, as Noah Baumbach writes and directs.
I’ve been a big fan of Adam Driver for a while and it was really nice to see him earn an Academy Award nomination last year for his work in “BlacKkKlansman.” Most people know him for his work as Kylo Ren in the new “Star Wars” trilogy, but this is his fourth collaboration with Baumbach and he gives a career-best performance. Like the film itself, Driver jumps from happy to confused to angry at the drop of a hat, and perfectly conveys all the emotions that one goes through when getting a divorce. He has one scene where he finally explodes and it is one of those sequences that you simply feel drained watching unfold, because of how raw it comes across as.
Scarlett Johansson also gives arguably a career-best turn, and gets to show some actual humor and emotion that the likes of the “Avengers” films may not allow her. She has one monologue in particular that will likely be used as her Oscar reel where she recounts her marriage to Driver and where things fell apart. We haven’t known these characters for all of 20 minutes and already we feel let down alongside her. I think that at the end of the day this is Driver’s movie, but Johansson gets plenty of scenes that she commands.
The supporting cast is all great, too. The scene-stealing, scenery-chewing duo of Laura Dern and Ray Liotta are great fun and they have some wonderful lawyer banter, and are two people you love to hate. Alan Alda also turns in a fantastic performance as one of Driver’s lawyers, who like Driver wants the divorce process to be as amicable as possible but Dern is out for blood; Alda’s mild-mannered old man is just so great because the character feels so real.
I really enjoyed Baumbach’s 2017 film “The Meyerowitz Stories” and thought the script there was great; this one is even better. Baumbach is an old-fashioned director who likes to have actors follow his written word and action to the tee, and the end result is a film that both breaks your heart and makes your stomach hurt from laughing. Like “Annie Hall,” there is a Los Angeles vs. New York City storyline and how the cities compare and contrast (“you’d love it in LA, there’s just so much more space than New York!”). There are plenty of dramatic moments that may hit more at home for those who have been married, gotten divorced and/or are a child of divorce (I check none of the three boxes), but even for the casual young person the ideas of love, struggle and betrayal will resonate.
There really isn’t much wrong with this film. It is 136 minutes but it flies by; honestly the editing by Jennifer Lame (who also cut together this year’s brilliant “Midsommar”) is quick but also specific when it has to be. Mixing violins and flutes, the score by Randy Newman is whimsical and melancholic at some parts and thrilling at others, depending on which of the couple the film is focused on, and I kept thinking how the music reminded me of “Toy Story.”
“Marriage Story” is hands-down among 2019’s best films and it has everything a film should have: uncontrived drama, organic characters and genuine laughs. I can’t wait to be able to watch it whenever I want once it starts streaming on Netflix and for it to reach the biggest audience possible. Baumbach has made something truly special here, a film that is built to last and only grow more personal as time goes on.
Critic’s rating: 9/10.
“Marriage Story” will play in select theaters before streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 6.