‘Marriage Story’ deserves all the film awards it’ll be getting

“Marriage Story” depicts a family being torn apart. From left are Scarlett Johansson as Nicole, Azhy Robertson as Henry and Adam Driver as Charlie. Photo: Wilson Webb/Netflix.

It isn’t often that my local artsy movie house, the Rafael Film Center, runs what could end up Oscar’s best movie of the year.

But that’s exactly what’s going on now.

The occasionally comic drama is “Marriage Story,” in my opinion director/screenwriter/producer Noah Baumbach’s best effort ever.

So it’s fitting that the 2-hour, 16-minute flick garnered on Sunday the most Golden Globe nominations — six, including best drama, best screenplay, best actor (Adam Driver), best actress (Scarlett Johansson) and best supporting actress (Laura Dern).

They may not all win a statuette, but they all deserve one.

Baumbach’s storyline and approach are straight-forward: They focus, compassionately, on a husband (Charlie) and wife (Nicole) trying to protect their 8-year-old son (Henry) while their bi-coastal marriage is splintering and their cut-throat lawyers take control.

It’s obvious that he knows whereof he speaks.

The tale was based on his 2013 divorce from film star Jennifer Jason Leigh after five years of marriage, shortly after their son’s birth.

Not that dissimilar, come to think of it, to Baumbach’s earlier movie, “The Squid and the Whale,” which had been based on his parents’ divorce.

Splitting couples were also a familiar scenario to his “Marriage Story” cast: When he approached Johansson, she was going through her second divorce — something he didn’t know at the time.

Driver has lived with his parents’ divorce.

And Dern’s character was based on a Los Angeles attorney who represented both her and Johansson during their respective divorces.

Tangentially, “Marriage Story” is Johansson’s third film inspired by a writer-director’s own experience with divorce, the others being “Her,” a 2013 Spike Jonze outing, and “Lost in Translation,” a 2003 movie by Sofia Coppola.

Baumbach films frequently feature characters who are emotionally challenged — with viewpoints that are often pessimistic, dark and acerbic.

“Marriage Story,” a Netflix production, is exceptionally realistic, sometimes heartbreaking to watch, peppered with guillotine-sharp love/hate moments, mediation that fails, even the shaking hands of a humane but ineffectual attorney poignantly, effectively portrayed by 83-year-old Alan Alda, who in real life has Parkinson’s Disease.

A highlight of the movie, Driver’s fourth collaboration with Baumbach, is an explosive verbal fight scene that required 50 takes spread over two days.

Which reminded me of the vitriol and tension in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

The Driver-Johansson outburst was one of several scenes that brought tears to my eyes — including a lengthy one in which Driver sings “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”

The film, which played this year at Mill Valley Film Festival with Baumbach and Dern in attendance, certainly compares with “Kramer vs. Kramer” as one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest divorce movies.

But the script for “Marriage Story” wasn’t finished when Driver and Johansson were cast, so Baumbach — who has long been living with Greta Gerwig, who’s been featured in three of his films — collaborated with his stars regarding some details of their characters’ character.

Unfortunately, “Marriage Story” is a perfect but painful film for anyone who’s married and needs to work through challenges as well as for the 50 percent of Americans who are divorced.

The latter of which includes yours truly and my current wife.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →