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Marriage Story (Criterion Collection)
I knew it was going to be good, but I had avoided watching Marriage Story on Netflix for some months, as I was not in the mood for a two-hour slog through a fictional couple's divorce. Noah Baumbach's (The Squid and the Whale) film has now made its way home via the Criterion Collection, so it was the perfect time to give it a spin. I am pleased to say Marriage Story exceeded my high expectations on almost every level and, most surprisingly, has much-needed humor amid the less pleasant domestic drama. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play Nicole and Charlie Barber, respectively, the couple at the heart of the film. Both give top-tier performances, and supporting cast members Ray Liotta and Laura Dern also are excellent. Marriage Story is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2019, offering a resonant, bittersweet look at the unraveling of a relationship.
The film opens in a therapist's office, where Charlie and Nicole have each written down what they love about the other. Charlie reads his touching letter aloud, but Nicole refuses before storming out of the office. Before the instant turmoil, Charlie and Nicole lived in New York City with their young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Charlie directs experimental plays, usually starring Nicole, who was previously a teenage movie star. She is offered a starring role in a television pilot in Los Angeles and takes Henry to live with her mother, Sandra (Julie Hagerty), who has a special relationship with Charlie. The move is supposed to be temporary, but when Charlie arrives, he realizes Nicole is laying down roots in California. Pushed by Nicole, Charlie agrees to split amicably and forego hiring divorce attorneys. This changes when Nicole hires an experienced litigator, Nora Fanshaw (Dern), to handle the legal separation. As the case heads to court, the couple also must wade through feelings of betrayal, neglect and resentment, while saving face for young Henry.
Baumbach, true to his style, places viewers amid the unraveling of this marriage, and prefers to wade through the weeds instead of offering a linear, plot-driven narrative. The pending divorce is fueled by Nicole's feelings that Charlie grew increasingly selfish in their marriage, failing to listen to her and dictating the couple's decisions. Nicole also grows tired of Charlie's stage notes on her performances, finding them overly critical and personal. Charlie is blindsided by Nicole's move to L.A. and feels betrayed, particularly when things heat up legally. The court battles in the film are particularly brutal; Fanshaw and Charlie's lawyer, Jay Marotta (Liotta), argue bitterly in front of a judge, driving wedges further between the pair. Marotta uses an anecdote Charlie mentioned about Nicole having too much to drink one evening and paints her as a drunk. Fanshaw tells the court Charlie is a jealous husband and unfit father who does not take advantage of the days he has with his son. In a fit of despair, Charlie punches a wall and breaks down in front of Nicole; both realizing the legal battle has gone beyond their desires.
The film was inspired in part by Baumbach's divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, as well as his parents' divorce, and screenplay is absolutely authentic. The director gives us enough backstory on the couple that we understand there were happier times, thus making the current misery unsettling. Some of the most affecting scenes involve Charlie trying to remain close to his son. Henry tells his dad he does not want to move back to New York City; that he likes his new school and friends. Charlie gets Henry second on Halloween, and he can barely stay awake for a depressing evening of trick-or-treating in a neighborhood unsuited for the activity. Henry becomes defiant and argumentative, and Charlie believes Nicole is the puppet master behind Henry's poor attitude.
Driver and Johansson are both excellent in their roles. They deliver emotional, devastating performances that are nothing short of realistic. Dern and Liotta are absolutely ruthless in their supporting parts, and quite funny throughout. Both are courtroom sharks unafraid to burn through their clients' cash and burn bridges. These scenes of levity, even when the subject is unpleasant, sets Marriage Story apart from other divorce dramas. I also appreciate that this couple seems like a couple I might know; even though they're involved in the television and stage industries, they are not wealthy stars with unlimited assets and no concern about dissolving their union. Marriage Story is a fine drama, expertly acted and resonant, and illustrative of the struggles many folks endure during a divorce.
Criterion still has not embraced the 4K Ultra HD format, but this 1.66:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is quite nice. There is a pleasing, filmic layer of grain that appears natural and properly resolved throughout. Fine-object detail and texture in costumes and on sets is abundant. The New York City scenes offer cooler colors and dimly lit interiors; while the L.A. scenes are bright, with high contrast and bolder colors. Contrast is strong throughout, skin tones appear natural, and the aforementioned colors are nicely saturated. The film looks great in motion, and I noticed no visual flaws.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track supports the dialogue-heavy film appropriately, and there are no technical issues to speak of. Conversations are clear, bold and properly executed, and the soundtrack handles contentious arguments and in-court appearances without crowding or distortion. Environmental effects make good use of the surround speakers and the score is pleasingly layered. English SDH subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release arrives in a cardboard digipack that unfolds to reveal pockets with reproductions of Charlie and Nicole's letters to each other from therapy. There is also an illustrated booklet with information on the film, tech specs and an essay. Bonus features include Interview (20:49/HD), in which Baumbach discusses the origins of Marriage Story, writing the characters, and the production; The Players (19:36/HD), is a collection of interviews with Driver, Johansson, Liotta, Dern and others; The Filmmakers (11:51/HD) focuses on Baumbach, his producer, editor and production designer; Making Of (97:41/HD), is a superb documentary on the production, with much on-set footage; Randy Newman (11:12/HD) concerns the film's score; Making a Scene (6:43/HD) dives into the apartment setting; and the bonus content concludes with two Trailers (2:34 total/HD).
One of the best film's of 2019, Writer/Director Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story debuts on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. This affecting drama about the dissolution of a marriage offers excellent turns from leads Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson and supporting players Laura Dern and Ray Liotta. Emotional, often brutal but frequently funny, this is an excellent film. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.