If you’re not a child of divorce, or a divorcee yourself, you’ve most likely been exposed to its effects at some point in your life, especially if you came of age during the divorce boom of the late 80s/90s. Marriage Story is likely writer/director Noah Baumbach’s most accessible film to date. Known for his low concept and relatable dramedies, he’s made a movie about the brutality of a marriage coming to and end for everyone involved. Although he’s tackled divorce before in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, mostly from the kids’ point of view, this time he shows it from the adult couple’s perspectives.
Married couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) take turns narrating beautiful observations about one another. They bring to light their spouse’s most intricate qualities, remarking how they make the other person so special. Once each of them conclude, we find ourselves in a therapist’s room, where Charlie and Nicole sit with their respective lists, only Nicole refuses to read hers out loud. We discover they’re in the middle of a separation. It begins.
Charlie is a successful theater director in New York while Nicole, a former teen film actress, is now the leading lady for his theater company’s upcoming play. They’ve been married for nearly ten years and have a young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), but have recently been experiencing marital troubles. As intelligent, rational people they decide to split amicably and remain friends without having any lawyers get involved. Surely, they can handle something like divorce without it ruining their lives, can’t they?
Nicole is offered a starring role in a television pilot in Los Angeles and leaves Charlie’s play. Since his production is moving to Broadway, he agrees to split his time between New York and being with Nicole and Henry in LA. Nicole is pressured by a friend to seek help from Nora (Laura Dern), a family lawyer. Nora is a total LA stereotype. She’s phony, materialistic, and cares only about the bottom line. Nicole spills everything to Nora about her troubles with Charlie and how she found herself in the middle of an identity crisis. At one point she tried owning the idea of being the wife of someone who was a star in his own world, even as her own notoriety was diminishing. But now she desires her old life back, in a way.
Nora begins speaking for Nicole, saying things that Charlie claims she would never say. He eventually caves in as he learns about the divorce process and tries to match up with the legal aggression and savviness on Nicole’s side. Nicole’s move to LA has made things exponentially more difficult for Charlie’s relationship with his son. If he wants to win joint custody of Henry, he now must establish residency on the west coast while trying to direct a play in New York.
As if all that wasn’t expensive enough, he realizes that he’s got to hire his own attorney, which he never wanted to do in the first place. Eventually, Nora’s manipulation and the loss of civility allow the couple’s once respectful separation to spiral out of control into an all-out bloodbath that neither Charlie or Nicole can no longer come back from.
Baumbach always manages to straddle the line between smooth and awkward with his films, and Marriage Story is no exception. His writing is very much rooted in theater, where dialogue and scene direction is almost like a dance, filling the movie with kinetic moments, not only physically, but emotionally. He often writes dialogue that sounds more incisive than normal people actually talk, though sentiments expressed are as real as it gets. The plot can often feel very dense, but the minutiae of Nicole and Charlie’s escalating conflict never gets in the way of the emotional gut punches. If anything, it only exacerbates it.
However, at times the script feels almost too finely tuned, revealing acting flaws with certain performers. Johansson plays a character she can’t always handle, or doesn’t exactly know how to as some of her delivery sounds unnatural and unbelievable. Fortunately, she’s such a skilled physical actress that she’s able to convey painful feelings and raw emotions through her facial expressions alone.
Driver, on the other hand, is on his A-game here (it probably helps that he’s worked with Baumbach before). Charlie isn’t impossibly likable, but he still kind of is. His transformation over the course of events evokes so much sympathy that he becomes the more attachable of the two leads, whether that was Baumbach’s intent or not.
A great supporting cast helps round out this spiraling human tragedy, especially Laura Dern’s vicious take as a predatory attorney. It’s a testament to her considerable skills that she’s able to make us believe such a likable actress can play someone so intentionally unlikable. Alan Alda has an all-too-brief role as Bert Spitz, Charlie’s elderly lawyer early on, bringing some much-needed warmth to the story and giving Charlie someone on his side.
Marriage Story is very sad, but also very real, an obvious result of Noah Baumbach’s personal experiences with the subject; this movie succeeds in making divorce as unappealing as Jaws made going into the water. The film puts enormous pressure on its two leads to carry this broken fairy tale to its inevitable, unavoidable conclusion, and both Johansson and Driver create one of the most authentic onscreen relationships we wish didn’t have to end. The message Baumbach seems to offer here is one of recognition, that the dissolvement of a marriage doesn’t have to mean the dissolvement of family. Sometimes, however, it means just that.