Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” is really the story of a couple’s divorce
—with all the emotional and financial devastation that occurs in the wake of dispensing with common sense and resorting to legal experts with varied agendas. The wonder of “Marriage Story” is how each of the major players retains the audience’s sympathy (there are no clear heroes and villains here, unlike say, Kramer vs. Kramer) even when they’re behaving very badly indeed. Another triumph of the film is how it mines the humor in even the darker moments, and in the next moment, flooring you with some cathartic revelation—or the simple unexpected gesture.
Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole and Adam Driver’s Charlie are a New York couple (she is the lead actress in estranged husband Charlie’s theatrical company) going their separate ways, initially with the guidance of a mediator. After a deftly rendered opening sequence wherein we see (through memories depicted in the unspoken letters the mediator has requested of each) what attracted them to each other, the movie plunges us right into a battleground of resentments and suppressed feelings. The bone of contention in the subsequent divorce proceedings is Nicole’s “temporary” move to California (along with their son Henry) to film a pilot—which gets picked up for a series, thus making the move “permanent.” Charlie sees this as a violation of an unwritten agreement that Nicole should remain in New York, while Nicole sees this as an opportunity to become her own person, rather than Charlie’s acolyte/satellite. The fact that their son Henry likes California only intensifies Charlie’s desire to “fight” for Henry, in terms of both custody and residence.
As one watches “Marriage Story”, one becomes painfully aware that despite all efforts at civility, matters will eventually deteriorate, and the ending that the lead characters envision comes at a heavier price—one that both characters seem aware of, yet is only all too inevitable. This film does as good a job as any film in recent memory of juggling various tones and shifts of mood. The serving of the divorce papers, as Nicole has retained the costly legal services of highpowered Nora Fanshaw (an excellent Laura Dern) has moments of regret, suspense, compassion and humor (as Nicole’s sister Cassie is awkward about serving the documents). Charlie’s visits to his potential lawyers, one Ray Liotta’s highly expensive, brutally honest shark, the other Alan Alda’s compassionate, pragmatic mensch offer bracingly sobering and bitingly funny (in their own way) appraisals of divorce law as it relates to parents and gender roles.
At the center of the film though, are two beautifully calibrated performances from Ms. Johannsson and Mr. Driver, and Baumbach’s screenplay and direction offer both actors the opportunity to register strongly both together and apart. They are both given showpiece monologues delivered in long takes, in which Johansson and Driver beautifully convey how little by little, they have seen their characters’ individuality and self-worth erode in the company of the other. There is also a searing, no holds barred climactic confrontation in which (nearly) everything is put out there in uncomfortably plain sight. And then there are the quiet moments, the looks, the brief exchanges, the small revelations, all of which play a major part in the film’s cumulative power. Toward the end, both actors get to deliver signature Stephen Sondheim songs (fitting for a film about “theater” people) that reflect their respective emotional states. One is the jaunty yet revealing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” for Nicole, Cassie (Merritt Wever) and their mom (Julie Hagerty in fine form); the other is the anthem “Being Alive” and delivered by Driver with as much raw force as the screen can contain. And even when one is emotionally drained from that, the film has a quiet kicker—or two. “Marriage Story” is one of the best films of the year—and another instance where the hype proves to be justified. (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood also more than justified its hype—what will one do come awards time…?)