Promptly delivering the promise of its title, Noah Baumbach’s profound and astute Marriage Story begins with the story of a marriage. We meet Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), artists raising a son in New York, over the course of two consecutive montages. As we’re treated to fleeting images of a shared life the couple lays out through voiceover everything that’s sustained their love, each running down a complimentary list of the other’s foibles and virtues. It’s maybe the most beautiful, heartfelt, romantic sequence Baumbach has ever orchestrated. It’s also, as we soon discover, an assignment given to Charlie and Nicole; they’ve been asked to write down what they like about each other for the therapist as they mediate on their separation. As quickly as we’ve been told the story of their marriage, we learn that it’s ending.
There isn’t an ounce of irony to that bait-and-switch prologue. It’s quite to the contrary, as it lays a whole groundwork for the woundingly perceptive drama to follow, establishing exactly what’s at stake for Charlie and Nicole: not their marriage, which is plainly beyond salvaging, but the possibility that they can walk away from it with any trace of respect and affection for each other still intact. Baumbach has tackled this subject matter before, though. Fourteen years ago, he delivered The Squid and the Whale, the loosely autobiographical tale of a teenage boy caught in the middle of his parents’ ugly uncoupling. But Marriage Story offers a different perspective, maybe a more compassionate one. A film about divorce from someone who’s now experienced it from the inside and out — he split with his ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, in 2010 — it attempts to rise above the sourness of the genre, the very kind Charlie and Nicole find themselves being sucked into like quicksand. It’s a story, that in some ways, might feel familiar. But so much of the power of Marriage Story stems from the way it transcends the simplicity of its premise, starting in a familiar place before sneaking into the transcendent.
Both Charlie and Nicole are professional as well as romantic partners — he an acclaimed director of high-concept avant-garde plays, she the star of his NYC theater company. At the heart of their “irreconcilable differences” are matters of agency, identity and geography. Marriage Story unfolds in two parts, two perspectives essentially. We start with Nicole. She appeared in a hit Hollywood sex comedy before moving to New York where she met Charlie and began devoting herself to Charlie’s work. She’s longed to return to California, where she grew up, to possibly re-launch her screen career and live closer to her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Wever). But Charlie, who vaguely agreed to one day accommodate this desire, has become too wrapped up in his ongoing projects to ever seriously consider the idea — even after Nicole scores the lead in a TV pilot. At the start of Marriage Story, the two are already at a dead end, but they’ve vowed to approach the separation amicably, and hopefully without lawyers. “I don’t want to be too aggressive, Nicole says. “I want to stay friends.” Certainly, they both hope to spare their son, the grade-school-age Henry (Azhy Robertson), any unpleasantness.
Throughout Marriage Story, a slew of tones and emotions come and go. But for Charlie and Nicole things do get unpleasant. With neither party willing to budge on where they’ll live Nicole moves to Los Angeles to shoot her pilot, bringing Henry with her, and then gets into hiring an attorney, escalating a no-fault split into something much more contentious. At the insistence of a colleague, the aforementioned attorney that Nicole hires is the high-powered Nora (a fantastic Laura Dern, wearing a deadly smile). Nora’s the sort of no-nonsense Hollywood veteran whose ability to assess Nicole’s situation requires her to balance being a benevolent therapist and a ruthless interrogator. Marriage Story often turns to be a kind of procedural, presenting divorce as an emotional and legal quagmire. A big predicament for Charlie early on is the question of residency, complicated by the advice he receives to get a place in LA: How can he prove to a judge that he’s committed to seeing his son regularly without reinforcing his wife’s case that they’re a Los Angeles family, not a New York one? While Nicole’s struggles are tinged with a mounting sense of empowerment, Charlie, for a while, stumbles through strong amounts of Kafkaesque frustrations and absurdities in the process that are compounded by the surreal emotional complications, which Baumbach milks for pathos and discomforting laughs. Not since, maybe, David Fincher’s Zodiac has a movie placed such absorbing emphasis on the jigsaw puzzle of searching for solutions that may never fully resolve themselves, while also still having a brilliant scene built around the tricky business of trying to find the kindest way to serve someone divorce papers.
It’s not before long till Charlie is paying his own visit to an attorney’s office, where he finds himself cowering under the barking demands of another hotshot lawyer to the stars (Ray Liotta); his harsh demands are comically undercut by the cheaper option Charlie seeks for a second opinion (Alan Alda), a frumpy negotiator who basically tells Charlie he may well give up. Alda’s real-life Parkinson’s tremors fuel what may be his saddest performance, and provide a shrewd allegory for the withering sense of defeat that bubbles up in Charlie’s consciousness as he comes to terms with the end of his marriage. Baumbach shrewdly identifies the parallels between his characters’ line of work and the theater of the courtroom, where Charlie and Nicole’s home life is weaponized by ranting proxies not necessarily conveying their true intentions. It’s not the only nod to the stage in a film that deploys a theater troupe and Hollywood crew as separate Greek choruses, before supplying each of its protagonists with climactic renditions of show tunes from Sondheim’s Company.
Marriage Story can be as funny, in its sharp observations about behavior, as any of Baumbach’s withering comedies, like Frances Ha or The Meyerowitz Stories. But its at the same that its a drama of remarkable insight and complexity, so confidently made that it often evokes the work of the great Ingmar Bergman; in the emotional intelligence and intricacies of Baumbach’s script; in the candid, absorbing closeups of Robbie Ryan’s 35mm cinematography. Baumbach also forgoes the jazzy zing that’s become a hallmark of his work with editor Jennifer Lame, instead slowing everything down, locking his actors into long takes in drab rooms and offices — as seen in the monologue Nicole delivers in her first meeting with her attorney, as she chronicles the evolution of her attraction to Charlie to its eventual dissolution. It’s a sequence that has enough detail to fill an entire movie of its own, and through it Johansson’s performance is so vivid and just incredible that you’ll feel like you’ve seen the whole story right before your eyes, without a single actual flashback. So much of the film’s tragicomedy rests on the shoulders of its stars, on Driver’s droll understatement and Johansson’s expressive transparency of feeling. And as you might expect in any divorce drama worth its salt, there’s a big fight, and it’s one for the ages: a polite discussion that plummets, with gut-wrenching speed and intensity, into a no-feelings-spared showdown. The two actors expertly chart the arc of flaring tempers, but the movie asks much more from them than just vitriol; doing some of the most emotionally textured work of their respective careers, they both map lines of compassion, resentment, and stress across their own famous featureful faces.
Through each minute of Marriage Story I feel it’s a little important to say that a sense of resonance often came for me, personally. While, no, I haven’t gone through a divorce, I am a child of one though. And while my parents aren’t really like Charlie or Nicole at all (their divorce, to my knowledge, didn’t get as messy), I was around the same age of Henry when my parents divorced. I say this because, as I’ve credited Baumbach numerous times already, the observations he displays here are alarmingly deep-felt. From the slight off-kilter nature of the drop-offs and pickups of Henry to some of just the general proceedings of the whole ordeal, Baumbach clearly knows the headaches and heartaches of this subject personally. He has no shortage of empathy to spread among his characters, even as he recognizes their desire for a clean, uncomplicated separation as a fantasy: the shared delusion of two people not quite ready to face the full reality of why things didn’t work out between them. Marriage Story, unlike so many other breakup movies, offers venom in drips and drops instead of drowning us in it, because it knows that no matter how far apart Charlie and Nicole drift, the feeling that first brought them together is still there, informing their flawed attempts to move on without destroying each other. Marriage Story is ultimately less about divorce than it is about surviving it — a powerful reminder that every breakup story looks familiar until it happens to you, and then the truth really hurts. Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach at his most perceptive and heart-wrenching, as he delivers an exquisite film filled with a pair of masterclass performances, deeply lacerating emotion, and sharp observations to match.
Marriage Story will be released on to Netflix on December 6