Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson & Noah Baumbach are all at their career best in a compassionate look at divorce.
Noah Baumbach films usually center around protagonists that start out self absorbed, and then learn to be (at least a little bit) less awful by the end. In Marriage Story, Baumbach’s latest, and possibly greatest, the protagonists, successful theater director Charlie (Adam Driver), and his wife, successful theater and film actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), start out seemingly kind and generous, but then discover they are just as selfish as those around them. It only takes the disintegration of their marriage for them to realize it.
Marriage Story begins with beautiful narration by Charlie and Nicole reading letters that sum up their love for each other, and the life they’ve built together in New York City with their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). The dream dies a quick death with a cut to a sterile marriage counselor’s office that reveals these letters were written as a precursor to the long, hellish journey these people are about to experience.
What at first seems like a mostly amicable separation, becomes something nastier when Nicole moves herself and Henry to Los Angeles for a new acting job, and she and Charlie begin to navigate the harsh realities of divorce. Lawyers, custody battles, and the impossible task of trick-or-treating in downtown L.A. all add up to an emotionally devastating portrayal of two people trying to start over, while having to come to terms with themselves and their doomed marriage in the process.
In most films about divorce, the couple usually starts at each other’s throats, but this one begins with Charlie and Nicole as decent people who generally get along, even though they know the end is near. This makes things even more tragic when things start to get real. Both of them become people they never thought they could be, succumbing to harsh tactics to win custody of their son and bringing out their worst impulses in order to win a war where everyone can only lose.
What separates Marriage Story from the rest of Baumbach’s filmography is that it could have wallowed in pessimism, but there is love and tenderness coursing through its veins. Divorce may be the end of a marriage, but the movie shows that it doesn’t have to mean it wasn’t worth it. Both characters come out the other end bruised but not broken. It also helps that both main characters don’t get stuck in a snarky, too cool for school attitude like people in other Baumbach movies, and is helped even more by two incredible performances.
Driver collects another “best actor of his generation” trophy with a performance that is like a car engine that can go from silent to bursting in flames in one line. Johansson gives a career performance too. Some of the most heartbreaking monologues and moments goes to her, and she delivers them with a warmth and vulnerability that rips your heart out of the chest cavity.
What separates Marriage Story from the rest of Baumbach’s filmography is that it could have wallowed in pessimism, but there is love and tenderness coursing through its veins.
Baumbach gives more screen time to Driver over Johansson, but he doesn’t pick sides. He gives both characters their own space to have their moments of triumph and failure (it’s mostly failure). He even makes New York and Los Angeles both seem equally unlivable in their own ways, L.A. with its suffocating “space” and rolling blackouts, and New York with its crowded streets and pretentious off-Broadway theater.
Besides the dry, acerbic humor and intricate character study we know and love from Baumbach, his actual filmmaking goes up a notch too. There’s a scene with an envelope filled with divorce papers sitting in the middle of a kitchen that is choreographed like a high stakes farce, giving these legal documents the power of a land mine we know will get stepped on at any moment.
Baumbach also uses the frame to enhance both Driver and Johansson’s performances. Both of their faces fill the screen during key emotional moments and the camera stays away to give the characters and the audience a breather when things get too intense.
It all comes together during an epic fight scene that is one of the most intense things you’ll ever see in a sad, single dad apartment. The camera gets close as they yell, then closer when they start to hurt each other with words usually said in deepest, darkest thoughts, and then even closer when things get so heated you breathe a sigh of relief when only a wall gets punched.
The film is also elevated thanks to Baumbach calling in national treasure Randy Newman to compose the soundtrack. We’re so used to taking Newman for granted with his lovely Toy Story scores that we forget just how effective his melancholy compositions can be, especially paired with a devastating non-talking toy movie.
Also, as I’m sure MacArthur Genius Grant winning theater director Charlie knows, the show is only as good as the ensemble, and we can’t talk about this movie without mentioning some of the actors that come off the bench.
Laura Dern, as Nicole’s intense but effective divorce attorney, Nora, continues her undefeated streak of being the best actor in any scene she’s in for the last four decades. She is able to be a calming friend with one sentence before stabbing you in the throat with the next one.
Baumbach also recruits a few, “Oh my God I missed these people and forgot how great they could be” actors, like Airplane’s Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s eccentric mother, and Ray Liotta as the other intense but great at their job divorce lawyer, Jay. Going in, I thought watching this movie as a writer/creative person who is one year away from marrying another writer/creative person would be like watching Carrie before going to the prom, and I was correct, but it was also strangely uplifting. Marriage Story portrays commitment in all of its raw, beautiful glory. It’s something that can end in a horrifying plane crash, but it’s a crash you can survive, making you appreciate being alive even more for having lived through it.