By John Mulderig
NEW YORK (CNS) — At first blush, the title of the drama “Marriage Story” (Netflix) may strike some as ironic. This is, after all, at least on the surface, an engrossing study of the divorce process in contemporary America.
Yet thoughtful viewers, especially those guided by Gospel values, will recognize the implicit but unmistakable affirmation of marriage underlying the proceedings since the loss of the bond between the film’s principals is limned in starkly tragic hues. If perseverance in marital commitment is not necessarily presented as a moral duty, it is depicted as something to be aspired to and cherished.
The split at hand is that between two gifted thespians, avant-garde New York theater director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson).
Their initial shared impulse to behave decently toward each other and to shield their young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), is swiftly undermined both by the nature of the legal system and by the aggressive stance of some of the attorneys involved. Her slick, high-end lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), for instance, cannily exploits Nicole’s dreams for her future as an excuse for profitable belligerence.
For his part, the first representative Charlie consults, bulldog-like courtroom warrior Jay (Ray Liotta), warns his potential client that any reasonableness he demonstrates toward Nicole will only make him more vulnerable. Though Charlie later turns to low-key, avuncular Bert (Alan Alda) for counsel, cruel escalation somehow seems inevitable.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s hard-hitting movie covers a broad range of emotions, from gentle affection to blind rage. And each of these moods is carefully calibrated by the script and skillfully evoked in remarkably fine performances.
Even more peripheral characters are memorable. Nicole’s mother, Sandra (Julie Hagerty), is exuberant yet headstrong, while Wallace Shawn provides comic relief in the role of Frank, a veteran actor forever dropping the names of the great figures from the past with whom he claims to have mixed on easy terms.
Frank also boasts of the sexual conquests of his youth and urges Charlie to escape his emotional pain through pansexual promiscuity. Although humorously intended, taken together with the vulgar terms with which the dialogue is steadily studded, this kind of dicey material would normally preclude endorsement for any but grown-ups.
Yet some parents may consider that the underlying value of the picture overrides such considerations where older teens are concerned. If “Marriage Story” can’t exactly be called a catechetical tool concerning matrimony, it certainly does drive home the toll that selfishness and a lack of communication can exact on a nourishing relationship that all involved once hoped would prove lifelong.
The film contains mature references, including to adultery and sexual acts, brief irreverent talk, about a half-dozen uses of profanity, a couple of milder oaths, as well as frequent rough and much crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.