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'Marriage Story': The Best Divorce Film Since 'Kramer vs. Kramer'

Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern court Oscars in a funny, heartbreaking masterpiece

spinner image 'Marriage Story'
Wilson Webb/Netflix

Rating: R

Run time: 2 hours 17 minutes

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Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Merritt Wever

Director: Noah Baumbach

Ever since Noah Baumbach earned an Oscar nomination and the top Sundance writing and directing awards for 2005's The Squid and the Whale — inspired by the divorce of his parents, novelist Jonathan Baumbach and Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown — he's been an up-and-comer.

But at 50, he has arrived. His Marriage Story, a masterpiece loosely based on his own divorce six years ago from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, is the best divorce movie since A Separation, if not Kramer vs. Kramer (which it echoes).

Scarlett Johansson does her best work in years as Nicole, a movie star's kid who won fame doffing her top in a youth comedy, then followed her husband, Charlie (Adam Driver), to New York and starred in his arty plays, which cooled her once-hot career. (Leigh, 57, the late actor Vic Morrow's daughter, shot to fame when her character lost her virginity in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and she has appeared in Baumbach's arty Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg.)

Now Nicole and their young son are back in Hollywood with her mom (quirky Airplane! star Julie Hagerty, 64) and jittery sister (Nurse Jackie's marvelous Merritt Wever, whom you must see in Netflix's Unbelievable), because Nicole has scored a big comeback TV role. “We're a New York family!” protests Charlie, who's plowing his MacArthur Genius Grant money into his first Broadway play. But he rents a place out West so he doesn't lose custody in the split. When father and son endure a dismal Halloween while trick-or-treating by car, the L.A. vs. NYC satire loudly echoes Annie Hall.

The movie magically captures the couple's deep bond — their marital therapist requires each to write a list of everything that made them fall in love with the other — and deftly sketches how it went wrong. In Baumbach's film about his folks’ divorce, the dad is the bad guy. In this more mature movie, both are flawed and sympathetic, and neither feels good about having to go to war in court — hey, should that MacArthur money go to the acting company or the ex-wife?

Enter the dragons! Alan Alda, 83, Laura Dern, 52, and Ray Liotta, 64, jolt the movie with grownup energy as lawyers who advise them on weaponizing each spouse's slightest misbehavior, recasting innocent events in a sinister light to woo a judge. Liotta lends genial Goodfellas menace to the part of a shark who charges $25,000 for a legal hit job. Alda is more genial as an attorney with a cat-infested office and a breezy, philosophical pessimism that isn't reassuring. But who really pops is Dern as Nicole's counsel. Liotta and Alda have a who-cares attitude about divorce — Liotta's office has a pillow with the embroidered motto “Eat, Drink and Remarry.” Dern's character is warmly sympathetic, cynically ruthless and also bitterly feminist. Her sarcastic aria about how women don't get a fair shake when push comes to judicial opinion is the strongest monologue in the movie and an awards magnet.

But the film will be festooned with honors. Baumbach is a probable Oscar nominee for best picture, director and screenplay; and Dern, Johansson and Driver are front-runners, too. Marriage Story's 97 percent positive Rotten Tomatoes rating is exceeded by few movies (including quintuple 2018 Oscar nominee Lady Bird at 99 percent, directed by Greta Gerwig, Baumbach’s partner and the mother of his second child).

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The key to Marriage Story is that it's not a tragedy or comedy, it's both and neither. A vivid, spontaneous-seeming slice of life, it's artfully calculated and packed with cinematic references you don't have to notice consciously to be moved by. It's even a musical, partly. At a family gathering, Nicole and relatives perform Stephen Sondheim's “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” conveying the ambiguity of love and the warm embrace of family that draws her away from Charlie's world and back to L.A. Alone in a karaoke bar, Charlie belts out another Sondheim tune:

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Somebody need me too much.

Somebody know me too well.

Somebody pull me up short,

And put me through hell,

And give me support,

For being alive.

Make me alive.

Marriage Story is a great movie because it makes you laugh, cry and feel more alive.

AARP critic Tim Appelo was Amazon’s entertainment editor and a critic for The Nation, Hollywood Reporter, EW, People, MTV, LA Weekly, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.

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