Kramer vs. Kramer, Robert Benton’s 1979 film that starred Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman as a New York couple navigating the pitfalls of divorce, reflected a culture where parental roles were shifting. After Joanna Kramer walks out, her workaholic husband, Ted, is forced to spend less time at the office and become the primary caregiver for his son, Billy. But when Joanna comes back on the scene, the two are pulled into a nasty custody fight.
Netflix’s Marriage Story, which leads in Golden Globe nominations, reveals that where divorce is concerned not much has changed. Gwyneth Paltrow may have coined the term “uncoupling” to put a more positive spin on a marriage splitting up, but inevitably two people previously in love soon resort to guerrilla tactics harming the children they hope to protect.
Marriage Story, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, begins on a positive note. Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) read lists explaining what they love about their partners. Some of the items are silly – “he’s great at telling someone they have food in their teeth” – others heartfelt – “she makes people feel comfortable even about embarrassing things.” But soon the scene shifts to a mediator’s office. Charlie and Nicole are involved in an exercise, trying to recall why they fell in love. We’re watching the beginning of the end of a marriage.
Nicole was born and raised in Los Angeles and moved to New York after she met and fell in love with Charlie, a New York theater director. Even though Nicole became a star in Charlie’s productions, the last one about to move to Broadway, she’s always regretted leaving behind what might have been a successful and lucrative TV and film career in L.A. When she’s offered a part in a pilot, she leaps at the opportunity, taking their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her. Charlie still believes the marriage has a chance and that Nicole will return to New York after she films the TV series. But once Nicole is back in California, she enjoys being with her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Wever). Henry, too, likes the out of doors and the chance to play with his cousins.
Although Charlie and Nicole vowed not to use attorneys, Nicole soon buckles under pressure and hires Nora (Laura Dern), a take no prisoners shark. When Charlie realizes he could lose custody of Henry, he tries to hire an L.A. attorney, discovering that Nicole (most likely on the advice of Nora), consulted with a dozen divorce lawyers who now can’t represent him. As a last resort he signs with a former entertainment lawyer (Alan Alda), who quickly proves he’s no match for Nora. When Charlie brings in a New York powerhouse, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), the case winds up in court with a child welfare worker involved. What had begun as an amicable “uncoupling” now is all out war.
Nothing in this film is surprising. (The fact that it so closely resembles a film that is 40 years old says it all.) The performances, however, are stunning. Johansson and Driver seem so natural in these roles we can easily believe they are married and struggling to end their relationship. Johansson’s expressions, whether she’s playing a super hero or a normal person, convey a wide range of emotions. No overacting here. Driver’s Charlie becomes the more sympathetic one, mostly because the deck seems stacked in the mother’s favor. But as the facts unfold, his missteps, some big, like an affair, some small, like failing to celebrate his wife’s successes, place more of the blame on his shoulders.
The supporting players are particularly strong. Dern just keeps adding to her already impressive resume and list of nominations and awards. She’s nominated for a Golden Globe, as is Wever, albeit for another Netflix series, Unbelievable. Hagerty, Liotta, and Alda are all terrific.
While there’s a caution about rough language, there should also be an advisory about the subject matter. Anyone going through a divorce, or anyone who knows someone in the midst of one, should be forewarned that Marriage Story is one heck of an emotional ride.
After a short run in theaters, Marriage Story can now be streamed on Netflix.
Photos courtesy of Netflix