Over the past few years Netflix has made a major push in an attempt to win some of Hollywood’s biggest awards. While they haven’t won anything big yet (Roma seemingly just missed out on Best Picture last year and the streaming network’s plethora of acclaimed series still have not won a Best Series Emmy), Netflix has some big chances this year as we saw with the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman last week. While Netflix’s movie release for this week doesn’t have the pop culture capital that The Irishman does, Marriage Story will certainly be another major awards contender for Netflix. Marriage Story is certainly a more subtle movie than most of the major Oscar contenders of this year, but that makes it all the better as it rests its success on two powerful performances from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.
Marriage Story follows a couple: Charlie (a New York City theater director that has built a series of successful plays together played by Adam Driver) and Nicole (a once up and coming movie actress who becomes a theater actress to support her husband played by Scarlett Johansson). We enter their relationship as their marriage has deteriorated and Nicole gets an offer to work on a pilot in Los Angeles. Eager to start again, Nicole moves to Los Angeles with the couple’s young son, which begins a slippery slope to pursuing a divorce that both wanted to avoid.
The most astonishing thing about this movie is that it gives you both sides of the conflict between the two main characters and never seems like it’s taking sides. The first third of the movie mostly centers on Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole. Johansson does a lot of work in making the character likable, and she builds up a great rapport with Azhy Robertson, who plays the couple’s son. This does wonders for the movie as Nicole is given less of the spotlight in the rest of the movie as Adam Driver’s Charlie takes center stage. Driver plays the much more emotional character and developments in the plot make it seem like Charlie is the character more at fault for the deterioration in the marriage. However, Driver and the writing do a lot of work in explaining Charlie’s mindset and that makes it so much easier to relate to the character and thus making what appears to be an equal field between the two characters.
Noah Baumbach (the movie’s director-writer who based this movie on his own divorce) does just as much as Johansson and Driver in making this movie work though. There’s a quirkiness to this movie that stands out more than most of his recent movies, but it never gets close to the point of something like the Coens or Wes Anderson. That really stands out in a movie that tries really hard to get into all of the little intricacies of the relationship at the center of the movie. It’s an interesting mix that makes this movie feel so realistic. Baumbach’s direction also stands out of the way as the actors’ performance power the movie’s most important scenes (whether it’s a wonderful one take as Nicole finally decides to listen to her lawyer and get a divorce or a scene that let’s Driver’s unique energy convey a sense of nervousness and embarrassment).
Marriage Story may feel small, but it’s ultimately one of the most honest portrayals of a relationship ever done in cinema.