Nicole and Charlie were probably doomed from the start. The same thing that brought them together – passion, shared values, a little codependency – proved to be their undoing. When we meet Nicole and Charlie, they have begun what will lead to the end of their union, and Marriage Story is about the toll it takes on them. Noah Baumbach is no stranger to fraught relationships: The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding had characters who could say mean, cutting things about their family. What makes Marriage Story unique is how it courageously dives into the pain and considerable psychological trauma from divorce. Parts of the film are sad, even heartbreaking, and yet Baumbach’s commitment to his premise keeps it from being maudlin. It also happens to be quite funny.
Scarlett Johansson plays Nicole, an actor who moves from New York to Los Angeles for a TV project, and she is more ahead of the proceedings. After visiting a cutthroat lawyer (Laura Dern), she is ready to make demands and fight for custody of her son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Adam Driver plays Charlie, a theater director who just won a MacArthur Grant, and he is in way over his head. He goes through the motions with Nicole because that is what she wants, and seems to think that somehow they will reconcile. At the very least, he trusts that Nicole will return to New York shortly. Geographic distance provides Nicole some clarity: as Charlie’s star and muse, she never had an opportunity to develop a life of her own. That clarity leads to resentment, and instead of settling out of court, Charlies needs his own lawyer for the trial.
Baumbach delicately observes these characters, spending long stretches with them adjusting to separated life. There is a long, mesmerizing monologue where Nicole describes her doomed marriage to Nora (the Dern character), and it accomplishes something tricky: it is articulate and well-written, without sounding written like Baumbach’s earlier films. Baumbach also has the wisdom to focus on little moments, like how Nicole begins her monologue. Parts of the film are like watching a train wreck because you see every mistake these characters are making. This is never more apparent than a scene where Charlie visits Nicole at her mother’s house, where divorce papers are waiting for him. The timing is exquisite, unfolding like what you might see in an Oscar Wilde play, except a devastating emotional beat replaces the big laugh.
At the screening of Marriage Story I attended, I was given a complementary set of tissues. Netflix is counting on audiences looking for a good cry, but that undermines what Baumbach accomplishes. If anything, the film is closer to Mike Nichols’ relationship dramas like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Closer. Words are meant as a form of comfort – watch how Charlie and Nicole reassure each other in the opening scene – until they are weapons. There is a long scene where, after legal fees and pent up hostility, they finally have it out. Driver and Johansson have never been better, each one-upping each other in order to inflict the most emotional pain, until they both practically collapse. Baumbach does not cut away from this ugliness because he understands their need for release, and this commitment to honesty is bracing.
If the arguments are the most painful bits, the superlative supporting cast is where the film finds its comic relief. Dern is great, as always, and so is Alan Alda as Charlie’s first lawyer. There is a sense of calm and wisdom as the lawyers try and coach their clients: they have seen one too many divorces to know how things go south, and the comedy is in how – in gentle but clear terms – what is really happening. One pleasant surprise is Ray Liotta, a cutthroat lawyer Charlie considers hiring. Liotta is not the sort of actor you imagine in a Baumbach film, and his intensity adds a layer of credibility to the plot’s intensity. Once the divorce proceedings begin, Marriage Story is a dense legal procedural, one where neither Charlie nor Nicole fully grasp each new detail. Henry is in the middle of all of this, of course, although Baumbach is careful never to exploit him.
Marriage Story could have gone wrong in so many ways. Driver could have been too edgy, or Johansson could have been too plucky. But in scene after scene, Baumbach and his actors have utter command of tone (Randy Newman’s sentimental score is the only element that does not quite fit). Still, the film earns every laugh, tear, sigh, and grimace. Most marriages are not as affluent and Charlie and Nicole’s. They are an intelligent, glamorous, successful couple. They work in the arts, and they have support systems. Maybe that makes Marriage Story easy to dismiss, except Baumbach writes about what he knows, so he cut through the details and find the raw humanity underneath. Charlie and Nicole summarize where they with renditions of Sondheim tunes, another esoteric reference, and these sequences are terrific because we can see what they want to hide.
When this ex-husband and ex-wife arrive at an understanding, finally, the last scenes are somehow the toughest to watch. After all that verbal sparring seething anger, Charlie and Nicole have not forgotten their history, and their happiness. We only see snippets of their honeymoon phase, so the last images – with the right amount of bittersweet courage in their faces – is enough reassurance enough.