Why Marriage Story Might be Even More Profound Than You Realized

Published on January 4, 2020

If you haven’t heard rumblings about Netflix’s Marriage Story at this point, you must have been living in an underground colony of mole people for the last few months.

The film’s stars, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, have received massive praise for their performances — including Best Actor / Actress Golden Globe nominations and SAG Award nominations  thus far, and an Academy Award nomination for each actor seems overwhelmingly likely.

Johansson and Driver’s performances are being hailed as raw and gritty. Many fans of the film assumed that the actors had done improv in many scenes, although they both evidently stuck to the script entirely, as people are pointing out on Twitter.

The more heated “fight” scenes, I will agree, do seem impressively off-the-cuff. But, I went in expecting the whole film to feel that way. It does not. 

Director Noah Baumbach is often likened to fellow director Richard Linklater. Linklater’s films including Boyhood, Before Sunrise and After Sunset are all regarded as utilizing that same raw and natural kind of acting that people noticed in Marriage Story.

In Linklater’s work, though, the tactic is almost always successful, even though he too stays true to the script. He merely reworks the dialogue with the actors until it feels right.

What I am about to say will surely be an unpopular opinion, but bear with me. It gets better. At the beginning of the film, I found the acting to be forced and robotic. Johansson and Driver both sound like they are at a table read through of the script. There are no natural pauses or hesitation between lines. They always seem to know exactly what to say and how to deliver it.

Some of you might be thinking “Well, yeah! They are awkward with each other because they just decided to end their relationship.” But, there is a difference between the circumstances of the scene being tense, and the actors themselves being tense.

This all lasts, I would say — up until Johansson settles on a lawyer, played by Laura Dern. Somehow, that seems to make their decision to go through with the divorce more real for them, and the floodgates finally open.The only exception is the scene where Johansson is just with her family, minus Driver. She is more natural and comfortable in her delivery, and that was incredibly telling.

As is true in most films, the stakes get higher, the plot progresses. But what I was not expecting was the acting itself to progress. I can’t recall the last time I saw a film that the acting wasn’t pretty much consistent the whole way through — whether or not it was good or bad acting. Alas, both Johansson and Driver become more and more unbridled in their performances. It’s captivating.

Since Marriage Story is rumored to have been loosely based on Baumbach’s real life relationship with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, there may be a lot that can be read into in the film by other actors and artists alike that the rest of the world would not be able to see as clearly.

My theory here, is that Baumbach may have (consciously or unconsciously) used the stiffness vs. ferocity of the performances as a vehicle for the audience. It is a commentary on relationships that have become as stifled as the acting in the film is translated. The fact that Johansson’s character, Nicole, is an actress herself — and that Driver’s character, Charlie, is a theater director, proves symbolic of that choice. 

And just like that — Marriage Story just got a whole new layer to its complexity.

Alexi Melvin is the Senior Entertainment Writer at Grit Daily. Based in San Francisco, she covers entertainment, events, and their intersection of tech. She is a voice actress, known for her work in the Star Wars franchise films. She is also fluent in both English and Sarcasm.

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