By Connor Dziawura
The comparisons that have been made between Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and Robert Benton’s 1979 film “Kramer vs. Kramer” aren’t without merit. From certain plot elements right down to the posters, the films bare some resemblance.
But to solely compare “Marriage Story” to “Kramer vs. Kramer,” or any other number of relationship dramas, would be doing a disservice to Baumbach, whose film has been predicted among the frontrunners for the upcoming Academy Awards.
Whereas “Kramer vs. Kramer,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, tells the story of a newly single father struggling to raise his son while dealing with a busy workload after his wife leaves him, as well as the legal proceedings that ensue when she returns seeking custody, “Marriage Story” takes an updated approach.
In Baumbach’s film, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star as Nicole and Charlie Barber, a married couple that has been living in New York. Charlie is an avant-garde theater director, and Nicole is an actress who stars in his play.
After the couple separates, Nicole moves back to Los Angeles with their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), to be closer to her mother, Sandra (Julie Hagerty), and sister, Cassie (Merritt Wever), as well as to star in a television pilot.
But with Charlie still consumed with his soon-to-be Broadway work on the opposite coast, life becomes more difficult as the couple navigates their messy divorce proceedings and work lives while attempting to keep some semblance of a relationship intact for their son.
Baumbach covers the divorce from the perspective of each parent, showing viewers the strengths and flaws of each parent in an attempt to refrain from taking sides.
And while it’s not without its emotional weight, the film is surprisingly funny—not a simple tearjerker. Baumbach and his actors know how to keep emotion at bay and provide levity, but it all culminates in one standout moment of catharsis later in the film.
Driver—a Baumbach regular who was previously featured in the writer-director’s films “Frances Ha,” “While We’re Young” and “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”—is expectedly fantastic in the film, while Johansson—also recently praised for her role in Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit”—gives what may be her best performance yet.
Laura Dern and Ray Liotta perfectly play the roles of the couple’s sleazy divorce lawyers, who attempt to besmirch the opposite parent’s reputation in the eyes of the court despite the parents’ attempts at civility. Alan Alda, on the other hand, is an attorney who provides a more human, compassionate view.
Hagerty and Wever give great performances as Nicole’s mother and sister, respectively, as do the rest of the supporting cast in their own roles. Veteran character actor Wallace Shawn and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe even make small appearances.
However, the biggest detractor from the film is Robertson’s role. Baumbach doesn’t reveal exactly how old son Henry is meant to be (minus a throwaway line that confirms his age is somewhere younger than 10), but it’s clear the actor is playing someone of a younger age than himself. This creates a disconnect, as Henry in the film has limited vocabulary, is still learning how to read and requires a car seat.
Regardless, that one small issue is not enough to sink “Marriage Story.” The film is a gripping divorce drama with simple, clean visuals; a pleasant score from Randy Newman; great performances; and excellent writing that approaches its subject with a great deal of wit. It may cover an age-old idea, but its heart keeps it from going stale.
“Marriage Story” is now showing at Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square 14. It will begin streaming on Netflix this Friday, December 6.