It would be easily forgivable should you need a reminder that Scarlett Johansson is among the more talented actors working today. She has, after all, spent most of the past decade donning a catsuit and kicking ass as Black Widow in the Marvel Universe. Fun times, to be sure, but not exactly the stuff of acting legend. Before all of that began with 2010’s Iron Man 2, however, she gifted us with head-turning performances in the likes of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Match Point, and Lost in Translation, scoring a trio of Golden Globe nods and a BAFTA win along the way.
If 2019 is the year of anyone in Hollywood, it may just be Johannson. Hot on the heels of her memorable turn in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit (not to mention her appearance in two of the top four grossing films of the year—Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel), she knocks it out of the park in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s phenomenal (and phenomenally heartbreaking) Marriage Story.
Johansson is Nicole, a New York stage actress with Hollywood dreams who is married to Charlie (Adam Driver), a director who runs the theater company of which she is the star. We know right up front that their marriage, which produced eight-year-old Henry (Azhy Robertson), is in its last throes—the film begins with the “what I like about my spouse” missives each no doubt begrudgingly wrote as an assignment for their couples counselor. From there, we watch as, over the course of two hours, Nicole and Charlie go from amicably separated to all-out-nasty to courtroom adversaries in a deeply moving and often excruciating study of love, loss, and family.
Baumbach, who based the film partly on his own early 2010’s divorce from actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, plays Marriage Story as a modern-day Kramer vs Kramer, examining the union’s demise from every angle. There are tears, laughter, screams, and hugs as small moments (Charlie has his costume designer make a snazzy Frankenstein costume for Henry for Halloween, but Nicole sweeps the rug out from under him) and large (Charlie and Nicole spew unadulterated vitriol in the inevitable knock-down-drag-out) unfold before us in a smart and ultimately beautiful fashion.
Along with the stellar work by Johannson and Driver (both of whom have since scored Globe nods for their work here), the supporting cast also excels, particularly Laura Dern (also nominated) as Nicole’s feisty Hollywood lawyer and Alan Alda as Charlie’s. Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, and Merritt Wever round out the ranks, each bringing spectacular nuance and depth to what could have simply been throw-away roles.
Honest, real, and expertly constructed, Marriage Story is the best offering yet from Baumbach, who has proved his mettle repeatedly in gems like Frances Ha and The Squid and the Whale. Here, his use of long, single-take shots and the film’s pseudo-improv feel (though the actors reportedly stuck very close to the script) make the film seem at times like a documentary, which, in turn, helps the entire experience hit home even more.
It’s a tough watch, to be sure, and may well require a Kleenex box (or three), but Marriage Story is easily one of the year’s standouts—a raw and powerful look at two people who come to understand the (sometimes) destructive power of lost love.