**** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language throughout and sexual references)
Released: November 2019 in select theaters; December 6 on Netflix
Runtime: 136 minutes
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Weaver, Ray Liotta, Wallace Shawn

Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,” Roger Ebert once said. “The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us,” and, he added, “they make us more decent people.”

Marriage Story is a great movie in exactly that way, and it’s the best exemplar of Ebert’s sentiment in all of 2019.

Somehow, some way, from some deep well of brutal honesty and profound charity, writer/director Noah Baumbach takes the hardest personal experience imaginable and tells it in the most humane way possible.

Like Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, Baumbach’s Marriage Story is actually scenes from a divorce. The title, however, remains true in a salient way: it’s through a divorce that we learn about this marriage. So, too, do the two people going through it. In that way, for married and divorced viewers alike, Marriage Story has the power to heal present wounds and soothe lingering bitterness.

Baumbach eases us in with a kind and generous (even hopeful) opener set to a Randy Newman music score that suggests the tone of a New York City Nora Ephron dramedy. But soon enough we learn that the trajectory of Charlie and Nicole’s marriage is something different entirely, and that sentimentality is not on Baumbach’s mind.

He doesn’t soften the process; it wouldn’t be true empathy if he did. But he has compassion for it, for the two people being torn apart by it, and the son caught in the middle.

Baumbach takes us through divorce’s grueling gauntlet in painstaking, revealing detail, eschewing a romanticized “conscious uncoupling” fantasy or, conversely, clichéd Oscar bait melodrama. This is personal. In a sense, Marriage Story is a primer on divorce, especially for those (like me) who’ve never gone through it. You think you have an idea, but you really don’t.

This shows us what the legal process is actually like and the emotional wreckage it wields, in all of its no-win paradoxes and Catch 22’s. Surprises keep coming out of nowhere, exploding like land mines, with a caustic toll left on the two going through it even while each are begging their legal arbiters for some semblance of humanity.

Charlie and Nicole verbalize hurts and express emotions that are often hard to articulate. There will be, no doubt, divorcees (and even happily married people) who will watch Marriage Story and finally feel heard and known for the first time.

Within that there’s also humor, but not a jokey or sitcom-y kind. It’s genuine and true, of a sort that recognizes the absurdity within this tragedy, of how a legal process that’s supposed to bring resolution to conflict actually magnifies it by design (freaking lawyers! – portrayed with satiric brilliance by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, but also with benevolence by Alan Alda). It’s maddening what a corrosive cluster the legal process can be, even for the most well-intentioned divorcees.

Baumbach isn’t only fair to both Charlie and Nicole; he’s magnanimous in a near-miraculous act of equity and understanding. Whoever we’re with and experiencing what they’re going through, the perspective is theirs; Baumbach makes their case, not in spite of the other but with sympathy for each spouse’s perspective. Nicole has been supportive and sacrificial, but she also grew cold and distant. Charlie was caring and attentive, yet he never truly heard his wife or considered her desires. They’re both responsible, but they’re still both good people.

Baumbach doesn’t flinch from indicting the legal biases against fathers during, but he also takes care to show the challenging expectations that are put upon mothers in this legal process. I found myself on both of their sides, rooting for each equally and not feeling conflicted about that. Credit Baumbach for striking such a sensitive balance, a proportionality that could be taken for granted but shouldn’t be.

Feats that also can’t be overstated: the performances by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, ones that must’ve been absolutely draining for them personally but are, consequently, the absolute standouts of the year and of their already impressive careers.

It’s not just the full range of emotion that they bring; it’s how fresh and raw those emotions are as they emerge (or erupt unexpectedly) scene-to-scene and moment-to-moment. From the rage of sudden anger to the heartbreak of unexpected discoveries, these are moments that can feel like betrayals even when they’re not.

Baumbach stages a showcase for both actors, giving them extended scenes composed of lengthy unbroken shots — especially when they’re unpacking the most baggage — thus allowing Driver and Johansson to live these realities (going through a wide range of conflicted feelings within a single take) rather than having Baumbauch construct or manipulate it for us. That requires creative courage, unwavering commitment, and absolute trust by everyone involved.

Baumbach is also keen to the challenges that relatives must navigate (Airplane’s Julie Hagerty is a standout as Nicole’s mom, who Charlie has seen as the loving mother he never had), especially for a child — here, an 8-year-old son — who lacks the instincts to calibrate such a monumental shift in stability, even as parents do their best to shield him.

Baumbach also crafts clever symbols and visual metaphors. Charlie’s Halloween costume is particularly spot on, as is a poignant visual of Charlie and Nicole closing a gate from opposite sides.

These little strokes of genius accentuate Baumbach’s broader aesthetic mastery, driven by a degree of directorial ambition that rivals any technical (and more obvious) achievement, especially as Baumbach has no VFX safety net to fall back on. The goods are either there or they’re not, and in Marriage Story — with this script, this cast, and Baumbach’s intuitive sensibility that seeps into every nuance — they’re there in ways that can absolutely devastating or deeply life-affirming.

Through the dissolution of this relationship, couples (whether married or divorced) can examine their own. It’s impossible not to. For the married, it could help bring clarity. For the divorced, yes, it can trigger and reopen grievances from the past but, by the end (and even along the way), this story can help reconcile them. That’s what empathy does.

At times, divorce brings out the worst in Charlie and Nicole but, through it all, they also still fight to maintain the best. To save it, to preserve it and to keep it; so that it won’t die, so that it will be the thing that lives on. We are shown divorce exactly how it is but, in Charlie and Nicole, we also shown how to persevere — with generosity and humility — and to salvage the good. Their valiant fight within the ugly one is what makes this story so beautiful.

As Ebert concluded, “Empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” In a civilization where divorce remains an ever-present reality, it’s hard to imagine a more essential movie than Marriage Story.

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