Netflix is king of the streaming game because they are willing to fund projects like “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story.” These films feature A-list actors and are directed by visionary directors in Martin Scorcese and Noah Baumbach, and most certainly would not have been made or have gotten enough anywhere near enough love they deserve in a theater setting.
Hollywood films these days are mostly loud and noisy superhero and action films, or soulless dime-a-dozen genre films made by focus groups. It’s hard to get a film made that means something and says something, because the Hollywood system in its current form is allergic to making gambles and taking risks, electing to shovel something bland and mediocre 9 times out of 10 rather than experiment into the great unknown and push cinema further into the future.
Thankfully, Netflix is willing to finance such projects, and by doing so, it is solidifying its brand as a place where you can get hundreds of existing titles, as well as risky new works. Netflix has become a haven for experimental and unique entertainment when its competitors are desperately trying to keep the status quo alive.
“Marriage Story” stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as acclaimed playwright Charlie Barber and former movie star turned theater actress Nicole Barber, who are divorcing after years of marriage. The film is informed by Baumbach’s own experiences with divorce, and as such, it is littered with details of the process, both how it affects children who are caught up in the process through Charlie and Nicole’s son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and how it affects every aspect of life for the former couple.
Baumbach takes full advantage of the freedom Netflix granted him, as the writer-director meticulously feeds the audience information about Charlie and Nicole’s marriage in a way that allows you to really process and appreciate every aspect of their failed relationship.
As Johansson explains in the film, the reason why their marriage didn’t work wasn’t as simple as them not being in love, and the whole divorce process is painful because it is clear that Joahnsson and Driver’s characters still have chemistry together and still care for each other very much. They just were not compatible because of huge character faults they both suffered from, as Charlie’s was never able to see past his own opinions and see Nicole and what she wanted in life, and Johansson was never able to properly communicate what she wanted until it was too late, and they never really reconcile in the movie, despite the fact that the film gives them several chances to do so.
“Marriage Story” has great commentary on the legal system and how it escalates the divorce process while draining both parties in order to benefit overpaid lawyers who harm more than they help. Charlie and Nicole originally want to just split everything 50/50 without lawyers, but when Nicole moves to Los Angeles temporarily to shoot a TV pilot, taking their son with her, she initiates a long and ugly custody battle after she visits a LA divorce lawyer named Nora Fanshaw on a whim (played by Laura Dern), who takes advantage of Nicole’s insecurities and anger towards Charlie.
Fanshaw and the other lawyers in the film are portrayed as unsympathetic and borderline sociopathic, coddling their clients into a long and ugly legal battle neither wanted. Without knowing it, by moving to LA and later deciding to live there permanently when her TV show gets picked up, she took key custodial decisions regarding Henry away from Charlie, despite the fact that the couple lived in New York City for about a decade. And despite this, she takes full advantage of the awkward position she put her estranged husband into; forcing Charlie to fly from NYC to LA as much as he can; using a legal loophole to get Charlie to originally pay for 30 percent of her attorney’s fees, as well as buy a second apartment in LA he can barely afford; and forcing him to constantly take time away from the Broadway play he had committed to directing, which contributes to it failing.
Mind you, as a theater director, Charlie already was living off of very little money, as most of the money he made went back into his theater company, while Nicole was living pretty comfortably off her new TV salary. Despite the fact that we initially see and understand Nicole’s motivations and circumstances, she becomes very unlikable after the first act of the movie, putting Charlie though hell.
I would just like to say that both Johansson and Driver put in their best performances in years, as Baumbach gives them opportunities to act like they have never gotten in their current blockbuster franchises. Driver, in my opinion, edges Johansson by a little, as the film focuses on him more than her, and as a result, he’s able to add depth to Charlie that Johansson can’t do with Nicole.
Charlie and Nicole’s marriage failed because of pride and selfishness on both sides of the marriage, as neither are willing to admit their faults or understand how they contributed to the destructive behavior of the other, and neither are willing to compromise on what they both want. They portray what some might see as an initially fixable marriage that gets twisted by the legal system and bad actors that warps their perceptions of each other in a way that hurts them both beyond repair. The best they can hope for is to be civil and to get out of each other’s ways in life as they raise their son.
It’s a tragic story, and one of the best films of the year. It certainly has two of the best performances of the year, and our leads are supported by a deep cast that brings their A-game.
Netflix, keep stories like this one coming.
“Marriage Story” gets a solid 9/10