Watching Marriage Story, it’s clear that Noah Baumbach has taken a side in the perennial debate of New York versus Los Angeles. “There’s so much space!” multiple characters tell Charlie (Adam Driver) in the hope of convincing him to see the virtues of the city. Charlie, a New York theatre director, is faced with the prospect of moving to Los Angeles in the course of his divorce from Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). The film chronicles their attempts to navigate divorce across two coasts while co-parenting their son, Henry.
Baumbach doesn’t appear convinced by the space, and it’s evident in the way the city is shot. Baumbach emphasises the grimier parts of LA, particularly at the beginning of the film. Gone are the palm trees and beaches, a byword for Los Angeles in so many other movies. In their place, he shows us run-down office blocks, convenience stores, and impersonal apartment blocks. When we do see the beautiful parts of Los Angeles, it’s from large windows in high rise office towers, visible but inaccessible. Compared with New York, it looks almost like an alien landscape.
Marriage Story is Baumbach’s most personal film to date, and it’s understandable – Baumbach himself has been through a bicoastal divorce. Although he can’t seem to shake his attachment to New York, it’s almost incredible how balanced the film is. There are no villains here, just two people trying to make things work once they have stopped working. The film’s emphasis on both characters is so finely tuned and deliberate, it’s almost impossible not to feel an abundance of empathy for both characters.
A film based around the subject matter of divorce could lean into melancholy to create emotional resonance, but Baumbach so adeptly uses humour as a pressure value that the intensity of the character’s experiences doesn’t overwhelm the film. This adds to the realism – horrible things can often be hilarious, and laughter can get us through the worst of times. Even still, the tensions building can’t be contained, and they erupt in a climactic, wrenching scene that feels so raw and real that it’s difficult to watch at times. Thanks to the strength of the performances, it’s even more difficult to look away.
While it’s well-directed with a fantastic score, the performances here stand out. While the film doesn’t reveal anything about Adam Driver’s talents that those who were paying attention already knew, his performance in this film is incredible. His onscreen presence is so engaging, and his performance grounds the film emotionally. While Driver is arguably given more to do, Scarlett Johansson’s performance is a career-best, and the film wouldn’t resonate half as much without her presence.
While Marriage Story is a balanced film, it’s not simplistic. Both parties don’t come out better off. As Nicole settles into her new life in LA, she is visibly transformed. Her hair gets lighter, and her outfits get more colourful. Marriage Story is not just a film about divorce, it’s about rebuilding yourself and what starting again looks like. The film feels therapeutic and conciliatory, and even Baumbach’s shots of Los Angeles become more beautiful towards the end of the film.
Ultimately Marriage Story is a love story, one that is no less romantic for being about the end of a relationship. It’s a film that invites you to bring yourself to it so much that everyone’s will have a different take on it. I know some people have found it overwhelmingly sad, but I read the film as quite hopeful. Baumbach demonstrates that even in the most challenging and gut-wrenching scenarios, there’s a way through.
Marriage Story is being released onto Netflix on 6 December 2019, with a limited release in cinemas on 15 November 2019.