Friday, December 6, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: Marriage Story

The most toxic relationships are the ones you don't even realize as such, until hindsight makes you see things clearly. That's the lesson Nicole and Charlie learn in "Marriage Story", the exceptional new drama from Noah Baumbach. Stunningly portrayed by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, this Best Picture Oscar hopeful conveys honest truths about love, marriage and divorce.

We first meet the embattled couple - Nicole, a up-and-coming actress and Charlie, a hotshot theatre director - during a mediation session, as both have decided to split amicably, in the best interest of themselves and their child. When the therapist asks them to list the positive things about their partner, however, Nicole suddenly realizes that she's harboring deeper feelings of pain than she initially suspected. Subsequently, she uproots her New York life - and their son Henry - to return to Los Angeles and be with her mom. But the pressures of long-distance parenting puts a strain on their civil friendship. Though they had agreed to forego legal proceedings, a heated divorce case and custody battle ensues.

The messiness of divorce is put in a sharp focus as Baumbauch's perceptive screenplay unleashes the myriad of emotions associated with it. As Nicole tries to rationalize the reasons for the split, the film gets to the truth of how willfully one-sided relationships can be, as the hopes and dreams of one partner become subsumed into the other's. It is often said that married people gradually begin to look like one another and "Marriage Story" poignantly conveys that "oneness" and loss of self.

Smartly, the script balances both perspectives, also showing how Charlie's ambition and pride caused him to neglect his wife's needs and to a certain extent, his own. Indeed, the nuances of both characters' personalities are brilliantly elaborated through many relatable moments littered throughout. I'm sure many audiences can relate to the hate-filled outbursts you instantly regret, as well as the subconscious competitiveness and selfishness that can erode a relationship over time.

While Johannson and Driver (slam dunk Best Actor and Best Actress nominees) show incredible vulnerability as the leads, the rest of the scintillating cast is equally as riveting. Laura Dern is particularly compelling as Nicole's self-assured lawyer who fights for her client like a bulldog with a smile. After two nominations throughout her career, she may have finally earned her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work here.

Dern's delicious performance embodies one of the film's most winning touches, namely it's frequent moments of levity. Indeed, Baumbach deserves every Best Director and Best Original Screenplay accolade he'll receive during this awards season for his masterful juggling act of humor and pathos. Punctuating the narrative with music, situational comedy and delightful bit roles (Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty are terrific as Nicole's sister and mother), it serves as a reminder that things are rarely black or white in life and relationships. As conveyed in the heartrending monologues which bookend the film, when all is said and done, sometimes the hardest truth about broken relationships is that there's still some love that remains.


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