'Once Upon a Time,' 'Portrait' top AP's 2019 best films list

Scarlett Johansson, left, and Adam Driver star in "Marriage Story."

One of my worries about people staying home to watch movies on Netflix rather than going out to see them in theaters is the loss of that communal experience. Instead of everybody in the same room at the same time watching the same thing together, we’re all isolated by ourselves, stuck in our own little entertainment niches.

So it’s been a nice surprise lately to see recent Netflix movies like “The Irishman,” “Dolemite Is My Name” and now “Marriage Story” become communal experiences on social media, at least on my admittedly movie-heavy timeline. The movies drop on a Friday, and people spend the weekend dissecting, arguing and meme-ifying the movie.

Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” which dropped last Friday, is especially susceptible to this kind of crowdsourcing. A painful, empathetic, but also kind of funny examination of a couple going through a divorce, it’s hard to watch the movie and not choose sides. Do we side with Charlie (Adam Driver), the acclaimed and self-satisfied New York theater director, or Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), the actress who has decided after years of helping Charlie pursue his dream that she needs “a completely different kind of life”?

At first, it is easier to side with Charlie. He seems like a nice guy who wants to maintain the marriage’s status quo, while Nicole is the one pushing for change. But as the movie goes on, the layers of Baumbach’s nuanced screenplay and the unguarded honesty of Driver and Johansson’s performances reveal a much more complicated story of their marriage, about a husband who refused to hear what his wife was saying, until the damage was irrevocable.

The result is a film that is sympathetic to all sides. Baumbach made one of the great movies about divorce in the ‘00s with 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale,” in which the split was viewed from the perspective of a teenage boy. “Marriage Story” now tells the same story from the couple’s perspective (asked whether the film is inspired by his divorce to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, he’s called it “personal but not autobiographical”). The film got six Golden Globe nominations Monday morning, and is likely to be a major contender at this year's Academy Awards.

The couple want to part as amicably as possible, but hit a sticking point when Nicole wants to take their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) to Los Angeles for her career and family, while Charlie wants to stay in New York with his theater company. Unable to agree, the couple gets pulled into the business of divorce litigation, hiring high-powered attorneys (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta) to battle by proxy.

But even there, I think it’s a little too easy to make the attorneys be the villains. As painful as the process is, the attorneys are merely extensions of the couple and their diverging interests. And, in the end, the settlement they come to seems like the right one, one that Charlie and Nicole couldn’t have come to on their own.

It’s a long road to get to that resolution, one that goes through a lot of heartbreak (including an absolutely vicious argument that is awful to behold) and some humor. Baumbach also captures the absurdities of divorce and single-parentdom. A scene where an “evaluator” (Martha Kelly) comes to observe Charlie and Henry that somehow ends up with Charlie gushing blood from a self-inflicted wound, is both laugh-out-loud funny and every parent’s worst nightmare.

“Marriage Story” starts with both Nicole and Charlie reading in voiceover essays they once wrote about what they love about each other. As grueling as the divorce gets, and as emotionally rough as “Marriage Story” is to watch, it never loses sight of that bond. It’s a love story that starts at the last chapter, but is no less affecting for that.

Also on streaming: We’ll see if the next big Netflix movie generates as much online discussion this weekend. Premiering this Friday is “6 Underground,” the new $150 million Michael Bay action movie starring Ryan Reynolds as the leader of an elite squad of global crime fighters who have faked their own deaths.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.