Directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern
Noah Baumbach’s latest domestic chamber piece opens deceptively. In Marriage Story, the central couple, a New York theater director named Charlie (Adam Driver) and his actress wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) recites the things they like about each other. “She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things,” raves Charlie about Nicole. “She listens, she chooses great presents, she’s brave, she’s a mother who plays—really plays.” Meanwhile, Nicole enthuses that Charlie “loves being a dad” and the attendant inconveniences that come with it (like juvenile nightmares), that he cries easily at movies, that he’s “brilliant” and “never lets other people keep him from what he wants to do.”
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Charlie and Nicole even list the quirks they find endearing about each other: She brews cups of tea that she forgets to drink, he unconsciously switches off lights because he’s energy-conscious. It’s a width-and-breadth accounting of two people that counts as one of the best openers to a character study ever committed to film because it instantly plugs you into this couple that you’re supposed to care about—and then completely blindsides you with what follows. Because Marriage Story isn’t the love story it prepares you for; it is a lacerating, heartbreaking—and sometimes hilarious—account of the comedy of errors, the petty squabbling, and the little earthquakes that come with, as Gwyneth Paltrow once called it, consciously uncoupling.
If Marriage Story is a love story at all, it would be a love story about divorce, about how it reveals the contours of a marriage at the point of its disintegration.
Charlie and Nicole have lived together for over a decade in New York, and now Nicole has returned to Los Angeles, where she once had a thriving career as a teenage starlet, for a TV pilot. While Charlie believes the move to be temporary, it soon becomes clear that the custody battle over their son Henry (a terrifically deadpan Azhy Robertson) will revolve around which city Henry will call home. Baumbach can’t help but tinge the proceedings with his trademark sardonic humor, and there is always a sense that he’s poking fun at the privilege of this particular couple, who inhabit that rarefied air where theatre and Hollywood celebrity intersect. (Two gags involve a theater actor played by Wallace Shawn agonizing over whether he should keep his shirt untucked, while another revolves around Nicole getting notes over how to hold a baby in her post-apocalyptic TV show.)
But mostly, the comedy springs from the middle-class impulse to remain civilized, keep up appearances, spare feelings. A whole scene is choreographed around the delicate matter of serving divorce papers, and when Nicole retains a reputable LA lawyer named Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern, riffing on the same wavelength as her corporate mom Renata Klein from Big Little Lies and stealing every scene she’s in), Nora portrays herself as the supportive best friend—until she turns into the shark Nicole hired her to be.
It’s when the lawyers get involved that Marriage Story starts to wound, not just Charlie and Nicole but also you, the viewer, because you can’t help but take their struggles personally—Baumbach gives you an unfettered view of the process in which every throwaway anecdote becomes weaponized, and intangibles like talent solidify into assets to be negotiated. The battle becomes messy and internecine, and it forces Charlie and Nicole to confront what it is about their marriage that ultimately stifled them.
Baumbach first gained prominence in 2005 with The Squid and the Whale, a semi-autobiographical account of his parents’ divorce as seen through the eyes of a child. Fourteen years later, he is leaps and bounds more mature, more generous in spirit as a writer and director, doing a heroic job of trying to understand Nicole and her desire to decamp to LA. But as a man, he situates the film’s center of gravity on Charlie, whose self-centeredness—after making fun of Nicole’s TV pilot offer, he suggests she funnel her earnings back into his theater troupe—is the black hole from which Nicole feels the need to free herself. (“You are so seamlessly melded to your selfishness, it doesn’t even register as selfishness anymore!” Nicole wails at Charlie during a climactic confrontation.) Driver and Johansson give bravura performances, embracing their characters’ sharp edges and imbuing every grace note with a compassion that sings.
Ultimately, the tragedy at the center of Marriage Story is that it is obvious this couple still love each other. (Even at the height of a contentious argument, Nicole can’t help but call Charlie “honey”.) It is that love and regard for each other which keep them locked in their toxic orbit, and cinematographer Robbie Ryan does an excellent job framing the characters as people trapped in small apartments and confining offices. (Which is ironic, given that Nora tries to persuade Charlie to relocate to LA with the promise of “all that space.”) And yet…in that same love and regard, Marriage Story finds the seeds by which these two gloriously flawed people can carry on. As Nicole says, breaking up is not as simple as “not being in love any more.” But by the end of Marriage Story, you know it still is about love: different, evolved, cognizant. And with one casual gesture of affection Nicole bestows on Charlie in a wide-open Pasadena street, Baumbach deposits you right back where it all began—heart broken, yes, but heart also opened.
Marriage Story is currently streaming on Netflix.