Venice fest review round-up: Critics say ‘I do’ — and how — to Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’

Let the Oscar buzz begin. The first big breakout film premiering at the Venice International Film Festival, which started on Aug. 28, has arrived and the Oscar awards season has officially commenced. Reviews are full of glowing words for filmmaker Noah Baumbach‘s 10th feature, a divorce drama with hints of humor starring Scarlett Johansson as a TV actress who wants to move to L.A. and Adam Driver as a New York-based play director who does experimental theater engage in a bitter split and custody battle.

Yes, it is personal, but as Owen Gleiberman of “Variety” points out, it also focuses on the whole industry built the dissolution of marriages: “This is the first film set inside what might be called the divorce-industrial complex. It’s about two people coming to terms with a process that, however necessary, is more wounding at times than their heartbreak.” While he compares the film to past divorce classics as “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Shoot the Moon” and “Scenes From a Marriage,” Baumback puts a modern spin on the premise by having the career ambitions of the wife being the sticking point.

As he writes, “This is a movie about New York vs. L.A. that’s really about the battle between the 20th-century cult of the Creative Dude and the 21st-century reality that women have many more choices than they once did.” Gleiberman heaps praise both on Baumbach’s script — whose bicoastal battles pits the two showbiz cities much like “Annie Hall” but in an updated way as well as pouring praise on Johansson, who might finally be nominated for her first Oscar, and Driver, who got his first nod last year for as a supporting player in “BlacKkKlansman.”

Jon Frosch of “The Hollywood Reporter” declares that the filmmaker, who previously did “The Squid and the Whale” (the source of Baumbach’s lone Oscar nod so far for original screenplay), “Margot at the Wedding” and “Frances Ha,” has delivered his best movie yet. As reviewer writes, “This is a tough piece of work, steeped in pain that feels wincingly immediate (it’s based on Baumbach’s own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh) and unsparing in its willingness to observe, at sometimes startling emotional proximity, good people at their worst. “

He adds: “It’s also funny and, when you least expect it (and most need it), almost unbearably tender, thanks in large part to the sensational leads, who deliver the deepest, most alive and attuned performances of their careers. ‘Marriage Story’ puts you through the wringer, but leaves you exhilarated at having witnessed a filmmaker and his actors surpass themselves.”

Xan Brooks in “The Guardian” gives the film four out of five stars. His key graph: ” Baumbach’s film is an ordeal – intentionally so – and it relies on its actors to pull the audience through. Playing Charlie, a feted director of avant-garde theatre, Driver starts out loose and rangy and then slowly stiffens and contracts, as if the legal back-and-forth has bent his very body out of shape. Johansson delivers brilliantly textured work as Nicole, a woman who longs to find her voice and strike out on her own but is never fully convinced that the ends justify the means. The film – meaning Baumbach – largely favours Charlie. But Johansson’s performance speaks up for Nicole.”

The first female critic to chime in on Rotten Tomatoes is Fionnula Halligan of “Screen Daily,” who is mostly blown away by much of the cast, including the current “It” actress of the moment, Laura Dern, as Johansson’s lawyer and the hugely reliable Alan Alda as Driver’s legal rep:” ‘Marriage Story’ can be a tough watch, thanks to outstanding, stripped-raw performances by leads Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson and some excellent support (from Alan Alda and Laura Dern, on a run of good form after TV’s ‘Big Little Lies’).  … Its cosy milieu of New York theatreland and a family of Los Angeles actors may narrow the film’s appeal, however, and the going is solid if unsurprising until Baumbach finally takes a risk in his closing scenes which lift the film out of its day-to-day reality and into something more singular.”

If these notices have sent you into cinematic nirvana, be aware that “Marriage Story” will open theatrically on Nov. 6 and stream on Netflix starting Dec. 6.

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