“Marriage Story” wasn’t originally supposed to screen at AFI Fest, but that didn’t lessen the enthusiasm of the creative team just before the upcoming Netflix drama film closed out the annual film convention at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Nov. 21.
Director Noah Baumbach made light of the last minute nature of his film’s inclusion in the festival after Apple TV+ canceled the new streaming platform’s first film premiere and AFI Fest scrambled to fill the void.
“We are truly thrilled to be here for the closing night of the AFI Film Festival,” Baumbach said, glancing up at his notes for laughs. “We’ve been looking forward to this moment for some time… It was exactly 29-and-a half hours ago that we received the wonderful news.”
Baumbach was joined on stage by the film’s only star in attendance of the event, actress Laura Dern of “Jurassic Park” fame, who took the opportunity to praise the work of the film’s writers and admit that she finds the emotions of the film difficult to handle even after having seen it four times.
“I will admit that I did not wear mascara tonight and don’t advise it,” Dern said. “What’s beautiful and elusive about the gift that makes us all fall in love with cinema is that we have this amazing opportunity to project or discover ourselves in storytelling.”
So does the filmmakers’ obvious warmth and passion for their project translate to a quality film and an enjoyable experience? That largely depends on how you define both of those terms. Let’s take a spoiler-filled dive into the plot.
In contrast to its title, “Marriage Story” actually portrays a “divorce story.” Adam Driver plays Charlie Barber, a young and successful theater director living in New York City with his soon-to-be ex-wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and their young son, Henry.
Charlie and Nicole have drifted apart from each other long before the start of the film. Nicole, a former teen actress, has dreams of returning to Hollywood for a new career while Charlie’s dedication to his job and a ‘marital indiscretion’ at work have driven an even bigger wedge between the two.
The thing that first struck me about the film was how very easy it was to buy the two main characters genuinely caring for each other, despite the fact that they also look like they want to kill each other (one of them actually says this to the other at the film’s best moment).
It shouldn’t take movie watchers long to realize that nearly every person on screen throughout the film is giving their performance everything they’ve got. Driver and Johansson are both excellent at selling the exorbitantly high emotional cost of dealing with an extremely complicated divorce.
On the other side of the attorney-client privilege rule, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda all work to make their clients’ lives as needlessly confrontational as possible in roles that perfectly suit each performer and should simultaneously amuse and annoy each audience member. The lawyers, coworkers, and other family members in the divorce largely serve as comedic relief in the movie, but the highlight of the film’s comedy comes from the fantastically subdued performance of Martha Kelly as “The Evaluator."
With the exception of some poorly devised comedy in which I genuinely thought Charlie had been killed in front of his son, the film is very well written. The dialogue doesn’t feel hamfistedly forced into poetry or mind-numbingly boring. Simply put, the story feels mostly real… and that’s both the strength and the weakness of the movie because this is a film that plays out exactly how you think it will.
Anyone who has watched a divorce from afar or even followed a celebrity couple split in the press will know how the story plays out before the first scene. People argue, people argue more, they cry, and then they sign the divorce papers, roll credits. If you were looking for surprises, you came to the wrong place.
Brandon’s Verdict: If you like emotional movies, you’ll like this one, because it’s a competently made film, but in reality, you’ve already seen this movie before. Aside from the excellent performances, there isn’t anything unique about “Marriage Story.”
To answer the question I posed at the beginning of this review, it’s a quality film, but when compared to the litany of other films I’ve seen this year, I can’t genuinely say I enjoyed it that much.
Want to check out the film for yourself? “Marriage Story” will be released on Netflix on Friday, Dec. 6.