Director Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story opens with a brilliant dual opening scene in which Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson’s respective characters narrate a list of things they love about the other. It’s a closed-door view of two perspectives on a marriage that has since fallen apart, the tragedy being that they refuse to read what they wrote about each other in a divorce counseling session, which perfectly sets the tone for this grueling view of love that doesn’t always last.But there’s a note Nicole (Johansson) makes about Charlie (Driver) in her writing that also illustrates a larger problem with how Baumbach goes about this intimate, potentially semi-autobiographical exploration (his ex-wife, director and actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, filed for divorce in 2010) of a relationship. She tells us right from the start that her husband often gets lost in his own world. You see, Charlie is a somewhat renowned theater director Off-Broadway, while Nicole is his chameleon-like leading lady, and also had a memorable part in a fictional ‘90s teen comedy. “She’s my favorite actress,” he tells us in his opening. Marriage Story is a film desperate to be ordinary in its portrait of a difficult divorce, and it succeeds very often. But Charlie and Nicole are immediately established as extraordinary people, the former more or less a vessel through which Baumbach sees himself. He’s lost in his own world, and it makes Marriage Story as a whole a little less ordinary than intended.
Looking beyond this insular quality that removes some of its inherent relatability, Marriage Story is otherwise well-acted, well-written, and emotionally on-point. Driver and Johansson give their all to Charlie and Nicole, respectively, both sharing equal play in how they manage to build a new life together for their son (Azhy Robertson) while also giving each other the chance to build new lives apart. One important way in which Baumbach does get out of his own world is ensuring that neither half of the couple comes across as the villain of the story. Charlie and Nicole are built as individuals who earn our empathy as much as they make mistakes that hurt the other. It’s as real and compassionate as a deep dive into legal separation can probably get.
Watch the teaser trailer for Netflix’s Marriage Story below:
It’s also often wickedly funny. Baumbach plays some hard truths for laughs, a contradiction that winds up working because it establishes how ingrained in each others’ lives marriage makes you, and how getting others involved can be a dangerous game. For example, Nicole’s mother (Julie Hagerty, reminding us here of her pitch-perfect comedic timing that made Airplane! soar) harbors a maternal affection for Charlie long after they’ve separated that flawlessly walks the thin line between sweetness and sadness that defines much of the film.
Then there are the lawyers, who act as a heightened metaphor for archaic gender roles as they start a war with each other that neither of their clients want. Laura Dern plays Nicole’s lawyer with the same vengeful soccer mom candor that made Renata Klein, her Big Little Lies character, the most meme-able of the bunch this past summer. Meanwhile, Charlie starts with a charmingly mild-mannered Alan Alda, and then graduates to a firecracker alpha male Ray Liotta. All three add a ton of flavor to the film’s appropriately small central conflict, with Dern being the most consistently hilarious.
But the focus smartly never shifts away from Charlie and Nicole. It’s hard not to yearn for more scenes of them together to establish a warmer connection before the divorce process tears them apart, but that’s not the story Baumbach is telling. When they do come together, however, both actors wear everything left unsaid in the opening scene on their face. Eventually, as they continue to be dragged through the legal process, they buckle, meeting alone to work things out only to find that they’re too far gone from each other at that point. Johansson is undeniably terrific as well, but it’s Driver whose explosive nature acts as an inevitable crescendo for the film’s many moving parts. In one of the best-acted scenes in any film this year, it’s then that they realize that their lives as they knew them are over, and that finding a way to restart while keeping each other around, at a distance, is paramount to their survival.
Baumbach’s direction is understandably restrained, though some stylistic flourishes make a world of difference. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography often positions Charlie and Nicole in a single shot as equal opposers, while other scenes are shot with an uncomfortable level of comfort to precisely capture the state of their relationship after knowing each other for so long. The contrasting visual palettes of New York and Los Angeles play a role in their conflict as well, both locales shot to be homey and familial, as Charlie hopes to raise their son on the East Coast and Nicole the West.
Even that contrast, however, of the two most conducive cities for creatives in the US highlights that the story doesn’t feel enough like it’s about an everyday couple going through separation. It’s a noisy contradiction that can muddy everything that works about the film. Luckily, that is still a lot.