Blu-ray Review: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s release of Noah Baumbach’s latest is built to last.

Marriage StoryNoah Baumbach’s Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. For one, its depiction of the challenges of a young couple’s divorce makes plenty of room for inside jokes about the art world and its oddball denizens. But as the initially amicable split between an acclaimed New York playwright, Charlie Barber (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of an old magazine profile about the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to an Ingmar Bergman classic that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come.

At first looking to handle their divorce without the involvement of lawyers, Charlie and Nicole hit a rough patch when the latter, who gave up a Hollywood career to move to New York and act in Charlie’s avant-garde plays, heads back to Los Angeles to shoot a television pilot, taking with her the couple’s young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). While in town, the various divorcées on set encourage Nicole to lawyer up, and she takes a meeting with divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a yuppie whose breezy chattiness can turn on a dime to cold-blooded strategic talk over how to win a court battle that Nicole doesn’t even want to be a part of.

Nicole, so passive at the start of her meeting with Nora, is initially marginalized within the frame by cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s camera, isolated in a corner of the room in angled compositions that make her look smaller than she really is. But as she begins to talk about her relationship, Nicole almost subconsciously begins to assert herself, getting up and walking around Nora’s office like she owns the place. Gradually, Marriage Story reorients the camera around Nicole, pushing closer until she dominates the frame. In an instant, you can sense that her meekness has been replaced by outrage at Charlie’s accumulated microaggressions.

Abruptly, an ostensibly pain-free divorce turns ugly, with Nicole serving a bewildered and hurt Charlie with legal papers. As Johansson plays up Nicole’s increasingly steely resolve against Charlie, Driver emphasizes Charlie’s bafflement as he’s forced to keep flying between New York and L.A. to meet with what few attorneys in town Nicole didn’t consult with first, thus limiting his options. As Henry grows more literally and emotionally distant from his father, Charlie is set adrift, haplessly attempting to retain his child’s love and keep his cool with Nicole.

At first, the film’s portrait of Charlie’s shortcomings, of the way he directs everyone in his life as if they were starring in one of his plays, is almost forgiving. Indeed, Charlie is so mild-mannered that Nicole’s vindictive behavior toward him comes to feel monstrous in its overreaction. But just as Baumbach’s understanding of Nicole starts to verge on the misogynistic, the film abruptly course-corrects, shedding light onto how much of Charlie’s ostensibly kind nature is a mask for a deliberately controlling, narcissistic personality. And in a handful of scenes, Marriage Story homes in on just how perceptive Nicole was of his manipulations, forcing us to reconsider the justifiability of her rage against her husband.

Baumbach executes this sudden clarification of Charlie’s true self with incisive aplomb, and in no small part with the help of Driver’s emotionally charged pivot toward manifesting the depths of Charlie’s toxic entitlement. Nicole’s unyielding resolve to open Charlie’s eyes to his worst flaws culminates in a furious argument between the two in which Driver rips the mask off of Charlie’s ostensible patience and good-faith attempts at an amicable split. The more heated the two get, the deeper they reach into their arsenal of repressed grievances to craft more savage criticisms of the other’s failings. Baumbach uses arrhythmic shot-reverse-shot patterns throughout the film to stress the latent tension in Charlie and Nicole’s interactions, but here each cut adds an element of danger, following the rapid escalation of fury between the frayed couple to the point that one expects violence at any second.

As dark as it gets, Marriage Story regularly offsets its tension with comic relief, particularly in a strong set of supporting performances. Alan Alda shines as Charlie’s genteel divorce attorney, Bert Spitz, who reassures his client that they won’t go all the way to court but must act as if they are, which, in a twisted bit of legal logic worthy of Joseph Heller, only makes a court battle all the more likely. And when a court-appointed social worker, Nancy Katz (Martha Kelly), comes to evaluate Charlie’s behavior around Henry, she exudes a stiff politeness, somehow both quizzical and clinically disinterested. This makes for erratic rhythms in conversation that, as a befuddled Charlie attempts to pass Nancy’s inspection, cast the woman as both straight man and foil. “Do you ever observe married couples,” Charlie asks at one point, desperate to fill the frequent silence left by Nancy’s visit. “No,” she responds, the confusion in her voice her first outward display of emotion. “Why would I?”

But the film’s prevailing mood is one of flailing anger and pain. Even at its most blistering, though, Marriage Story contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place.


The Criterion Collection’s new 4K transfer, supervised by director Noah Baumbach, is superlative across the board, offering nearly as detailed an image as a new 35mm print. The film’s color palette is generally muted, but a more diverse range of hues is on dynamic display in several sequences, such as when the characters dress up for Halloween or Adam Driver sings Sondheim inside a dimly lit piano bar. Throughout, the image boasts strong contrast, most notably during the on-stage sequences early in the film, where the inky blacks of shadows brush against pools of light rich in detail within the same shots. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack boasts squeaky clean dialogue and a robustness in its presentation of Randy Newman’s alternatingly buoyant and delicately somber score.


The behind-the-scenes footage that makes up “The Making of Marriage Story” captures the intensity of shooting the film’s more emotionally wrenching sequences. The feature, which clocks in at over 90 minutes, is at its most intriguing when lingering on Baumbach as he works with actors to determine everything from psychological motivations and the minutest of gestures to the staging and blocking of scenes. In a separate feature, shot in the Los Angeles apartment where Charlie stayed, Baumbach dissects how the location’s negative space, hard edges, and sharp angles were used to create a sense of discomfort and anonymity, particularly during the climactic argument scene between Charlie and Nicole.

The remaining extras included on the disc largely consist of interviews. In one, Baumbach discusses his attempts to surreptitiously shift the audience’s sympathy away from Charlie and toward Nicole and the influence of screwball comedy on some of Marriage Story’s lighter scenes. Divided into two sections, “The Players” and “The Filmmakers,” the interviews with the cast and crew, respectively, do more than a little fawning over Baumbach’s genius, but also make a great case for why the director is driven to do numerous takes. They even get at the methods used to make the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles feel distinctly claustrophobic. A final interview with Randy Newman speaks to the tremendous attention Baumbach pays to his films’ scores from the start of production through the final edit.

Criterion has housed the disc in a unique six-panel digipak, which includes sleeves that hold replicas of the letters that Charlie and Nicole read in voiceover at the beginning of the film. And finally, novelist Linn Ullmann contributes a short essay in which she compares Marriage Story to Marguerite Duras’s novel The Lover and commends the film’s effective portrait of the various performative elements involved in both marriage and divorce.


A solid union between sparkling A/V quality and a thoughtful, if not particularly diverse, assortment of extras, Criterion’s release of Marriage Story is built to last.

 Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Azhy Robertson, Wallace Shawn, Martha Kelly, Mark O’Brien  Director: Noah Baumbach  Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach  Distributor: The Criterion Collection  Running Time: 137 min  Rating: R  Year: 2019  Release Date: July 21, 2020  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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