"Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other," Katharine Hepburn said. "Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then."
And so it goes for newly separated Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in writer-director Noah Baumbach's latest dramedy, Marriage Story. Problem is, Charlie wants Nicole and their son, Henry, to stay in New York City near him while Nicole is eyeing Los Angeles, which is home to her mother, sister and budding movie career. And a bicoastal relationship isn't what Charlie – or Hepburn, for that matter – had in mind.
But Nicole is headstrong, goal-oriented and tired of playing second fiddle to Charlie, who is an accomplished theater director. Though Baumbach takes great pains to show from the outset that the two still admire and love each other, their marriage is no longer healthy for Nicole. "I got smaller," she confesses.
Charlie is struggling with the idea of divorce, though, ironically, he is the one who cheated. And despite their seemingly amicable separation – which includes counseling and the assumption that divorce will eventually follow – Charlie is devastated when Nicole serves him papers. It was his hope they could avoid lawyers, but it's not to be.
In Margot at the Wedding and The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach explored issues of marriage and divorce. But, until now, he's never created anything this emotionally powerful, so overflowing with humanity. And he knows it, as he told the audience at the Telluride Film Festival, "It's the best thing I've ever been involved with."
He was speaking about a single scene in which Driver and Johansson leave their tears and souls on the soundstage floor, but he might as well have been discussing the entire movie, which – once it moves past its slow, somewhat ordinary beginning – is simultaneously hilarious, thought-provoking and heartbreaking. And the cherry on top is a lovely score by Randy Newman.
This is an actor's movie, one in which Baumbach trusts his performers with his tender writing and isn't afraid to let them emote in mesmerizingly long takes. Expect Oscar nominations for both Johansson and Driver, with the latter my choice to collect the trophy over Joker's Joaquin Phoenix. Nominations could come for supporting actors too, specifically Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as a wonderfully eclectic trio of squabbling attorneys. And though Wallace Shawn (Charlie's theater friend) and Julie Hagerty (Nicole's mom) don't add much narratively, they are interesting additions to the best ensemble of the year. Lastly, let's not forget young Azhy Robertson (Henry), who conjures memories of Justin Henry's performance in Kramer vs. Kramer.
Marriage Story might lack the razzle-dazzle of the aforementioned Joker, the existential depth of Ad Astra and the visual magic of the upcoming 1917, but it still deserves a spot alongside those films in this year's top 10. Regrettably, it has received only a limited theatrical release, which means most of you will have to stream it on Netflix starting this week. That's an awfully small place for such a big film, but at least you'll get to ugly-cry (and laugh) in the privacy of your own home.
– This story appears in the Dec. 3, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.