7 Jan 2020

Review: Marriage Story

From Widescreen, 3:13 pm on 7 January 2020

Marriage Story shows (yet) another side of the great Adam Driver, reports Dan Slevin.

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Photo: Netflix

Adam Driver is an unusual actor and an unusual movie star. For someone who never really changes his look – his long hair over his generous ears for example – he still manages to disappear inside his characters so for an audience member you never doubt whether he, for example, is a conflicted space warrior or a bus driving New Jersey poet.

Prompted by David O. Russell’s boxing drama The Fighter (2011), I once came up with a theory that there were two types of actor – one who goes towards the character and transforms, often physically, into who they are portraying and one who brings the character to them, essentially finding ways in which they can use their natural traits and habits to make us believe.

There’s no right way or wrong way. In The Fighter, Christian Bale went through a physical transformation to play a drug addicted failed boxing coach. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg just stayed within his range but somehow remained utterly plausible as a young boxer who could be a champion if he just applied himself.

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Photo: Netflix

Driver seems to do neither of these things. Or is it both? He doesn’t put on 27kg like De Niro in Raging Bull or lose 28kg like Bale did for The Machinist. He’s never even grown a waxy moustache like Johnny Depp did for Mortdecai. And yet still he disappears, still you find yourself never questioning that he is who he says he is – country-inflected folk singer in early 60s New York, asshole hipster in present day Brooklyn, a driven senate investigator determined to reveal American war crimes.

Anyhow, I have become very fond of Driver and his excellent choices and outstanding work ethic – four significant feature films in 2019 alone.

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is Driver’s third trip with Noah Baumbach, the New York auteur. He played the aforementioned Brooklyn hipster for him in the excellent Ben Stiller vehicle While We’re Young in 2014 and was one of Greta Gerwig’s lotharios in Frances Ha (2012).

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as prototypical upper-middle class New Yorkers in Marriage Story.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as prototypical upper-middle class New Yorkers in Marriage Story. Photo: Netflix

Marriage Story is something of a departure for Baumbach. He’s still in that upper middle-class artistic New York milieu but there’s an edge we haven’t seen before. Perhaps that’s because this story of a likeable creative couple’s deteriorating divorce has the whiff of autobiography about it – there are some demons being exorcised here I think.

Scarlett Johansson plays Driver’s wife, an actress who put a possible Hollywood career on hold for her off-Broadway avant-garde theatre director husband, firstly because she believes in him and then because her name adds some lustre to necessary box office. When she sees a chance to rekindle her own career during pilot season in Hollywood you can see that there’s going to be no easy way for this situation to resolve. And you’d be right.

Add three different types of LA lawyer – the bulldog (Ray Liotta), the feminist (Laura Dern) and the father figure (Alan Alda) – and you start to feel in your bones the tragic inevitability of their deteriorating relationship.

I have focused on Driver here because he fascinates me but also because Marriage Story focuses on his story slightly more than Johansson (who is also amazing by the way). I don’t want that to mean that Driver’s character is the hero of this picture – he most certainly is not and I don’t think Baumbach intends him to be – but the sad unravelling happens through his eyes.

Marriage Story is streaming now for Netflix subscribers and is rated 13+ according to Netflix’s own classification scheme.