Synopsis: As the marriage between theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver) and actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) heads towards its inevitable end, all that both parties can agree on is that the parting should be amicable and mutually beneficial. That, however, is much easier said than done, especially once the lawyers get involved.
1. Marriage Story begins in a deliberately misleading way, as voiceovers from our two lead characters play over a gentle montage, elaborating on how the other is a wonderful spouse, parent, and person. At this point, it’s tempting to consider that writer-director Noah Baumbach, that caustic dissector of social relations, has gone soft. Then the sting – these statements of praise are an assignment from a mediator attempting to make the divorce as amicable as possible. The fact that neither Charlie nor Nicole ever read their statements out loud to each other should clue the viewer in on how successful they are in achieving that goal. Marriage Story is an empathetic look at how a marital union dissolves and how even the best intentions can be gnarled into ugliness by the process of divorce. While Baumbach’s acidic wit is still present, it is largely aimed towards the bureaucratic procedures and legal gamesmanship involved in modern divorce. Marriage Story is not an easy watch – there are moments that are painfully gut-wrenching – but it is a rewarding one, with both Baumbach and his actors in peak form.
2. The divorce narrative is, of course, hardly a new one, with the peak being Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage (alluded to in this film). Marriage Story, however, manages to find a unique niche in the genre with its focus on process and procedure. It is highly reductive to directly map a film onto real life, but it is hard not to consider how Baumbach’s real life divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh has informed Marriage Story. The specificity of Charlie’s frustrations with the legal system feel too lived-in to come purely from the realm of objective research. This is a film about the snowballing of minor things – establishing residency (the couple fights about whether they are ‘from’ New York or LA), legal fees, and elaborate custody agreements all factor into the narrative of the film. Part of the screenplay’s cleverness is also in how the ‘minor things’ of the central relationship end up becoming ammunition for the battle to come. A joking aside shared together is later transformed into an accusation of unfit parenting. There is a deep undertone of sadness throughout on how moments that were once tender are warped by the divorce process into ugliness. However, it has to be noted that Baumbach’s gift for comedy is still very much in evidence, and his ability to find humour in even the darkest moments is especially welcome in a film like this. There is a scene in the final third where Charlie attempts to put on a good show for a relationship evaluator that had me in absolute stitches.
3. This type of film lives and dies on the strengths of its actors. Think of Gosling and Williams in Blue Valentine, Hoffman and Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer, or Daniels and Linney in Baumbach’s own The Squid and The Whale*. Marriage Story is no exception, and is one of the best acted films this year. This is thanks to the fact that the cast is absolutely stacked, rivalling only Knives Out as the single strongest conglomeration of Hollywood talent. It says something when a film can cast Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Wallace Shawn, Julia Hagerty and Merritt Wever in its minor roles, and using actors of such strength means that these characters make a huge impression in their limited screen time. The brightest star in the supporting cast is Laura Dern, who takes her usual affable charm and totally subverts it by playing Nicole’s complete shark of a lawyer. The usual Laura Dern tics are present – the megawatt smile, the slouchy body posture, the tremendous sense of warmth – only they are portrayed as part of an apex predator’s arsenal to disarm helpless victims before tearing them apart.
4. As the feminine half of the main couple, Scarlett Johansson has arguably the harder role. As mentioned, much of Marriage Story feels intimately personal. As such, the scales are tipped slightly in Charlie’s favour, and the additional sympathy that the film wants you to have for him (over her) is obvious. Still, Johansson does a wonderful job of reminding everyone that she is much more than Natasha Romanoff, in a performance that hums with expressiveness and vigour. Her Nicole feels like a real person, flawed enough to be infuriating even as her actions and motivations are understandable. There is a long-take monologue of her expressing her frustrations at being trapped in a marriage with a partner whose ambitions have overshadowed her own that is some of the best work she has ever done. As her soon-to-be ex-husband, Driver matches Johansson in intensity and then some. Driver continues his unimpeachable acting record so far, playing Charlie as a wounded, confused man simply looking for some clarity. Baumbach plays to Driver’s greatest strengths of goofy affability and volcanic anger, giving him numerous opportunities to express his full range of emotions. Credit must also be given to both men for never whitewashing Charlie, as both screenplay, direction, and performance make clear that this is a selfish man who has become used to getting his own way.
5. It is this combination of clear-eyed understanding and expansive empathy that makes Marriage Story one of the best films of the year. While Baumbach’s usual witty dialogue and semi-farcical scene constructions are still very much in effect, this is a film that largely proceeds at a realistic rhythm, allowing its viewer to understand and empathise with the characters as they proceed along their inevitable trajectory. This is not an easy film to sit through, particularly if you watch it with your spouse (as I did), as it goes to some very raw and painful places. Yet, even more than the venom and vitriol hurled by Charlie and Nicole at each other during their worst arguments, it is the palpable sense of love and affection that they still have for each other that hurts the most. It is a love that shines through in little moments, like her tying his shoe or him fixing her gate, that serve as a reminder of why they fell in love and what they will lose with the divorce. Baumbach and his actors understand that more than anger or pain, it is love that truly creates a tragedy.
*As a child of divorce and a divorced man, it is understandable why Baumbach would keep returning to this particular obsession.