REVIEW: ‘Marriage Story’ presents universal themes of pain, healing

“Marriage Story” tells the heartbreaking story of couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), their impending divorce and the impact of their failed relationship on their son. (Photo from IMDb)

Toward the end of “Marriage Story,” Charlie (Adam Driver) sits on his couch talking to a social worker who has come to observe his relationship with his son as a result of messy divorce proceedings. In the midst of conversation, while demonstrating a trick he occasionally does for his son involving a box knife, he accidentally cuts himself. Despite the profuse bleeding, he attempts not to acknowledge it, feigning normality despite a wound everyone can see. 

This is what “Marriage Story” is ultimately about: the ways people hurt and how we attempt to move on with our lives.

The film tells the story of Charlie, his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) and the divorce driving their family apart. Charlie is a successful New York theater director, and Nicole was his muse for years, but she has now decided to move to L.A. to pursue a career on the big screen. Divorce papers are served, lawyers are hired and they’re off to the races.

The strength of this film, as with all of Noah Baumbach’s work (most recently 2017’s fantastic “The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected”), is in the writing. The dialogue is somehow simultaneously clever and naturalistic, combining moments that are too witty to be true with moments that are too true to be witty. 

He also plays a lot with perspective — early portions of the film are told almost entirely from Nicole’s perspective before switching to Charlie’s. Baumbach subtly uses each protagonist as an unreliable narrator, procuring empathy by showing us Charlie through Nicole’s eyes and vice versa. It’s an incredible little trick that I haven’t seen been used this well since “Certified Copy.”

The switching between perspectives would not be possible without a plethora of strong performances though. Driver in particular is a stand out and will definitely be a contender for Best Actor this year. He plays a man who is pretentious yet kind, aloof yet caring. He uses his strange brand of charisma to fantastic effect. Johansson is quite good as well, and there’s an amazingly funny side character played by Laura Dern. Robertson, who plays the couple’s young son, is also remarkably good, especially for his age.

“Marriage Story” is one of those films one can truly resonate with. One can feel Charlie’s pain as he struggles to prove he’s the father he believes he is, but also Nicole’s pain as she attempts to define herself by something other than her marriage to Charlie. 

It’s incredibly empathetic and understanding, turning words into knives and conversations into elaborate dances. Yet, its greatest achievement isn’t having the viewer understand why Charlie and Nicole were in love — rather, it’s understanding why they aren’t anymore.