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Front Page - Friday, January 31, 2020

‘Marriage Story’ will remind you why you love movies

There’s a scene in “Marriage Story,” a new drama streaming on Netflix, that made me laugh harder than I have in a while. In it, a man who’s trying to convince a social worker he’s a good father accidentally cuts himself with a pocket knife while demonstrating a game he plays with his young son. As he grips his arm to stop the profuse bleeding, he tries to casually play off the seriousness of the wound.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my neighbors heard me laughing.

A different scene in “Marriage Story” made my eyes well up with tears, despite my best efforts to contain my emotions. Without giving too much away, I’ll say it involves the son reading a letter the mother wrote. As Charlie helps his child sound out words he doesn’t recognize, his chin begins to quiver and he tries to swallow his tears.

Is there a cornier response to a movie than “I laughed, I cried, it was great?” Probably not. But what else can I say? That’s what I experienced as I watched the ironically titled “Marriage Story,” which follows a couple in the throes of a coast-to-coast divorce.

Adam Driver is Charlie and Scarlett Johansson is Charlie’s wife, Nicole. “Marriage Story” opens with each of them narrating the things they love about each other as we watch them go about their daily lives.

“It’s not easy for Nicole to close a cabinet,” Charlie says as he head thumps an open door. “Charlie loves being a dad. He loves all the things he’s supposed to hate, like waking up at night,” Nicole chimes in as we see Charlie throwing back bed sheets to check on his son.

By the time these two lovebirds are done showering each other with praise, we already like them. And then we find out they were reading letters they wrote as an exercise in a divorce mediation.

And just like that, “Marriage Story” has cast its spell. In a few efficient minutes, writer and director Noah Baumbach has taken us emotionally from the honeymoon to the slamming of the gavel in divorce court – and it’s devastating.

But we can’t turn it off because we’re already invested in these two characters, who are fully relatable and played by two tremendously likable and talented actors.

Getting married is easy. Being married can be hard. But getting a divorce is one of the most soul-gutting experiences one can have. I’ve been there. A lot of people I know have been there.

Baumbach, who was married to Jennifer Jason Leigh, has been there, too. Maybe that’s why “Marriage Story” seems to effortlessly capture the joys and agonies of spending your life with another person, as well as the gut-wrenching devastation of breaking those powerful ties. Through his perceptive writing and observant lens, Baumbach captures life in all of its emotional complexity.

Baumbach also says a few shrewd things about our culture along the way. Just watch what happens when the scheming California lawyers – skillfully played by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta – get involved.

I’ve been on a Driver kick lately, watching “The Report,” “BlacKkKlansman” and “Paterson.” It would be easy to say he’s brilliant in everything he does, or that he’s one of this generation’s best actors, even though those things would be true.

So instead, I’ll proffer that his greatest ability as an actor is his authenticity. There’s a genuineness to his acting that’s on a level higher than many other film thespians.

When Charlie’s anger slowly ramps up during an intense argument with Nicole and then explodes, I wasn’t thinking about how gifted Driver is, I felt as though I was watching a human being in the midst of his most painful life experience. And when Charlie crumbled after expelling his anger, I collapsed with him.

That sounds exhausting. And it is. But “Marriage Story” is also funny, uplifting and encouraging. And it contains one of my favorite final shots in a film – a perfect image beautifully composed and packed with meaning and hope.

I saw “Marriage Story” the same week I watched “1917.” Each reminded me of different reasons I love movies. For “Marriage Story,” it was the way a group of artists came together and vividly depicted the human experience. What a terrific way to start another year of watching movies.