Movie review: Netflix’s ‘Marriage Story’ deserves its Oscar buzz

It’s easy to tell a story about a couple falling in love, and Hollywood has done it many times.

These stories begin in different ways. Maybe it’s a period drama, like “Pride and Prejudice,” where the couple dislikes each other at first but are later forced to admit their growing attraction. Or maybe it’s a rom-com with an adorably awkward “meet-cute,” like running into each other at a coffee shop or a dog park.

Yet no matter how they begin, these stories all come to the same end: the couple falls in love and lives happily ever after. These stories leave us with a warm fuzzy feeling, like snuggling under a blanket or enjoying a cup of hot chocolate.

It’s much, much harder to tell a story about a relationship falling apart, when “happily ever after” turns out to not last forever after all.

Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” now streaming on Netflix, dares to tell this kind of story, with all of its nuance and complexity and heartbreak. It also speaks to the changing nature of cinema and how we interact with it; “Marriage Story” is a film distributed by a streaming service that is generating (well-deserved) Oscar buzz.

“Marriage Story” begins with a voice-over from a couple — Nicole and Charlie — describing what they like most about each other. It’s a touching, romantic scene…until you realize that the couple is actually meeting with a mediator as their relationship dissolves.

Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is an actress who followed Charlie (Adam Driver) to New York City, where he now has a very successful career as a theater director. They have an adorable young son and a life that, on the surface, most people would envy.

But when you start chipping away at the facade, the dysfunction starts to become clear. While they still love each other, they can’t live with each other anymore. Nicole temporarily moves to California for a television role, but then she decides she wants to stay. Charlie’s life is in New York, and he doesn’t want to be separated from his son.

What is supposed to be an amicable split soon turns ugly, involving high-powered lawyers and the revelation of the worst of Nicole and Charlie’s faults. Their son, Henry, remains caught in the middle, as they try to find their way forward together the best that they can.

“Marriage Story” is one of the most emotional movies I’ve watched in a long time; it’s the sort that lingers with you a long time after the credits stop rolling. It also feels refreshingly authentic — Nicole and Charlie feel like real people, with real flaws and real problems. The film does not villainize either one of them, and it does not try to hide the messy nature of the narrative. It is simply telling a story, and it’s up to us to evaluate what we’re seeing and what we want to take away from the experience.

Adam Driver is simply amazing in this (but I expected that, because he’s always amazing). It was great to see that Scarlett Johansson was also excellent, and I think this might be the best role I’ve seen her play.

Driver and Johansson’s performances are what make this film so compelling. The most powerful scene — which is also the most difficult to watch — features a vicious shouting match between these two, where both actors leave nothing behind. As their hearts break, yours does too.

People always love movies with happy endings, but it’s sometimes it’s good to have a movie where everything doesn’t end happily ever after. Pretty much everyone can relate to experiencing a broken relationship, whether it’s ending a friendship or having to cut a family member out of your life. Even if the other person is toxic, we still feel grief for what might have been, had the other person made different choices.

I’m glad that “Marriage Story” isn’t trying to hammer home a particular message; as mentioned earlier, it simply tells us a story, and invites us to take a peek at this very intimate portrait of a family experiencing change. As in life itself, this movie has both laughter and tears, both sorrow and joy.

It reminds us that life doesn’t always work out as we hope or plan, but it is possible to find healing and to build a new “normal.”

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