‘Marriage Story’: Noah Baumbach’s new take on a broken home

by Megan Bianco

Noah Baumbach’s new film “Marriage Story” is not very similar to Robert Benton’s classic “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

Netflix’s marketing for the past few months would lead you to believe otherwise – particularly Marriage’s poster, which looks like an intentional homage to the original “Kramer” poster. While both are centered on the divorce of a married couple with a 5-year-old son, each movie looks at the process from different angles.

If anything, “Marriage Story” calls back to Baumbach’s own 2005 feature, “The Squid and the Whale”. The writer-director still has a bittersweet knack for building family stories on broken homes (no doubt influenced by Baumbach’s own parents’ divorce when he was in high school).

From the outside, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) have seemingly perfect lives. They both have successful entertainment careers: Charlie, the best art house theatre director in NYC; Nicole, a Hollywood actress who switched to the stage upon marrying Charlie. They have a cute son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and live in a nice, family-sized apartment. But Charlie has been sleeping on the couch at night, the couple is attending marriage counseling, and Nicole is considering signing up for a TV series as an excuse to spend six months in LA.

“Marriage Story” features one of the best supporting casts of the season, with Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Julie Haggerty and Laura Dern (as one of the most unlikable characters this year).

Those who have been following Baumbach’s career since 2005 will probably wonder how much Nicole is based on the filmmaker’s ex-wife, mother of his first child and former collaborator, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The character’s backstory has similarities to Leigh’s real-life upbringing, but it also helps that Johansson’s own history is a bit like Nicole’s.

The family drama is a tour-de-force for both Driver and Johansson who will most likely gain nominations throughout the awards circuit later this season. A particular stand out is a nearly 10-minute sequence of Charlie and Nicole just straight yelling at each other.

The showbiz aspects of the story also reminds me of another – unfairly forgotten – divorce dramedy, “Irreconcilable Differences” from Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers. As the most famous divorce movie, the “Kramer vs. Kramer” comparison is inevitable, but “Differences” makes more sense. At the end of the day, though, Marriage Story is Baumbach’s own tale. In “The Squid and the Whale,” we saw the deconstruction of a home through the eyes of a child in the middle of it. Now we see it as the father.

Megan Bianco

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