Split Personalities

In a gripping Marriage Story, breaking up is hard to do

Adam Driver busts out a spontaneous piano bar rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive" in this movie. That's all you really need to know to justify seeing Marriage Story.

OK, there are a few more reasons to see the movie. Actually, a lot more. Driver and Scarlett Johansson are incredible in writer/director Noah Baumbach's best movie yet, an alternately searing, touching and hilarious look at a marriage's end times.

Nicole and Charlie Barber work in a theater company together, she the performer and he the director. The movie starts with them in counseling, going through a divorce where they promise each other things will remain amicable and lawyers won't get involved. Nicole will go to Los Angeles and pursue film acting while Charlie stays in New York to facilitate his latest play making it to Broadway. They are determined to share custody of their young son. This will be a pleasant divorce.

Then...the lawyers get involved, of course.

Early in the film, it's a wonder why these two are getting divorced. They're both quiet about it and, heck, you might even think there's a chance they can pull out of the nosedive and make a happy landing.

Nope. Just, nope. This director will not be trafficking in easy endings.

Baumbach comes from a place that knows two people can really love each other, yet put themselves through a progressive, scorching hell to achieve separation. Nicole tries to remain civil, but Charlie has done stuff that's going to result in things that will make the proceedings a little rougher than first thought. Nicole gets herself a lawyer in Nora (Laura Dern just being the best Laura Dern ever) and Charlie eventually caves and gets one too in Bert Spitz (a funny Alan Alda) and, his eventual replacement Jay (an even funnier Ray Liotta).

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this movie contains the most realistic, earth-shattering, devastatingly honest marital fight I've ever seen in a movie. The participants in this scene simply had to have gotten medical assistance when it was all over. Driver and Johansson do things in this film you will not soon forget.

It's not just the moments where they tear into each other. They do a credible job of letting you know theirs isn't simply a case of two people falling out of love. They still love each other, and that's what makes the vitriol so hard to watch. While Baumbach and his cast definitely provide the reasons for the marriage's failure, and these two should probably go their separate ways, the movie allows for you to wish things will get better even as they are getting far worse. It's so well written, it's scary.

Randy Newman puts forth a score that is playful, hopeful and bright, even when the movie goes bleak. It's almost like the music is there to soften the blows. It's one of the year's best scores, and one of the best of Newman's storied career.

Adding to the supportive bliss alongside Dern and Alda would be the legendary Julie Haggerty, she of Airplane!, Lost In America, What About Bob? and, most importantly, the vastly underrated Freddie Got Fingered. She plays Nicole's mom, also an actress, and she's the funniest thing in the movie. Like Newman, her participation makes the hard stuff go down easier.

I expect there will be a cavalcade of Oscar nominations for this one, and there damned well should be. It's one of the best movies of the year, and one of the best and most honest films about relationships ever made. Baumbach has gone next level with Marriage Story, and you won't soon forget the ballad of Nicole and Charlie. Also, Driver needs to do a musical sometime soon, because the boy can sing.

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