Promptly fulfilling the promise of its title, Noah Baumbach’s profound and perspicacious Marriage Story begins with the story of a marriage. We meet Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), artists raising a son in New York, over the course of two consecutive montages. As we’re treated to fleeting images of a shared life—board games, dinners, haircuts, arguments—the couple lays out through voiceover everything that’s sustained their love, each complementing the other’s complimentary rundown of cherished foibles and virtues. It’s maybe the most beautiful, heartfelt, romantic sequence Baumbach has ever orchestrated. It’s also, as we soon discover, an assignment foisted upon Charlie and Nicole; they’ve been asked to jot down what they like about each other for the therapist mediating their separation. As quickly as we’ve been told the story of their marriage, we learn that it’s ending.
There’s no bitter irony to this bait-and-switch prologue. Quite to the contrary, it lays a whole groundwork for the woundingly perceptive drama to follow, establishing exactly what’s at stake for Charlie and Nicole: not their marriage, which is plainly beyond salvaging, but the possibility that they can walk away from it with any trace of respect and affection for each other intact. Baumbach, of course, has tackled this subject matter before. Fourteen years ago, he rejuvenated his flagging career with The Squid And The Whale, the loosely autobiographical tale of a teenage boy caught in the middle of his parent’s ugly uncoupling. But Marriage Story offers a different perspective, maybe a more compassionate one. A film about divorce from someone who’s now experienced it from the inside and outside—he split with his ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, in 2010—it attempts to rise above the sourness of the genre, the very kind Charlie and Nicole find themselves being sucked into like quicksand.
They’re professional as well as romantic partners—he an acclaimed director of highly conceptual avant-garde plays, she the star of his NYC theater company. At the heart of their “irreconcilable differences” are matters of agency, identity, and geography. Nicole, who appeared in a hit Hollywood sex comedy before decamping to New York to devote herself to Charlie’s work, has longed to return to California, where she grew up, to possibly re-launch her screen career and live closer to her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Wever). But Charlie, who vaguely agreed to one day accommodate this desire, has become too wrapped up in his ongoing projects to ever seriously consider the idea—even after Nicole scores the lead in a TV pilot. As Marriage Story begins, the two are already at an impasse, but they’ve vowed to approach the separation amicably, and hopefully without lawyers. “I don’t want to be too aggressive,” Nicole says. “I want to stay friends.” Certainly, they both hope to spare their son, the grade-school-age Henry (Azhy Robertson), any unpleasantness.
Things do get unpleasant, though. With neither party willing to budge on where they’ll live—a major concern even post-marriage, given the question of custody—Nicole moves to Los Angeles to shoot her pilot, bringing Henry with her, and then gets talked into hiring an attorney, escalating a no-fault split into something much more contentious. Marriage Story turns out to be a kind of procedural, presenting divorce as an emotional and legal quagmire. Charlie, whose choice of counsel is limited to those Nicole hasn’t already met with, ends up volleying from Park Slope to Echo Park and back again. The pickle of his predicament is the question of residency, complicated by the advice he receives to get a place in LA: How can he prove to a prospective judge that he’s committed to seeing his son regularly without reinforcing his wife’s case that they’re a Los Angeles family, not a New York one? The Kafkaesque frustrations and absurdities of the process are compounded by the surreal emotional complications, which Baumbach milks for pathos and discomforting laughs. There’s a brilliant early scene, for example—a screwball disaster of best intentions gone awry—built around the tricky business of trying to find the kindest way to serve someone divorce papers.
What Marriage Story understands—and conveys with heartbreaking clarity—is that the system is designed to make people hate each other, the better to benefit their representation. Nicole’s lawyer, played by a pitch-perfect Laura Dern, turns out to be a master of manipulation, knowing just how to handle anyone she’s addressing. (She delivers a late speech about the pressure on mothers that’s as calculated as it is accurate—no wonder it’s already inspiring roars of applause.) Charlie, meanwhile, toggles between two lawyers, an alpha-male attack dog (Ray Liotta) and a more empathetic career attorney (Alan Alda) not cut out for the trench warfare of negotiation. Baumbach shrewdly identifies the parallels between his characters’ line of work and the theater of the courtroom, where Charlie and Nicole’s home life is weaponized by bloviating proxies not necessarily conveying their true intentions. It’s not the only nod to the stage in a film that deploys a theater troupe and Hollywood crew as separate Greek choruses, before supplying each of its protagonists with climactic renditions of show tunes from Sondheim’s Company.
Marriage Story can be as funny, in its sharp observations about behavior, as any of Baumbach’s withering comedies, like Frances Ha or The Meyerowitz Stories. But it’s also a drama of startling insight and complexity, so confidently made (and so expertly shot on 35mm) that it evokes the art-house renaissance of the 197os—a time when American directors were hustling to compete with the imported visions of Bergman, Fellini, etc. Forgoing the rat-a-tat zing that’s become a hallmark of his work with editor Jennifer Lame, Baumbach slows everything down, locking his actors into long takes—like the monologue Nicole delivers to her attorney, laying out the full scope of her dissatisfaction—within drab waiting rooms and office buildings. So much of the film’s tragicomedy rests on the shoulders of its stars, on Driver’s droll understatement and Johansson’s expressive transparency of feeling. As in any divorce drama worth its salt, there’s a big fight, and it’s one for the ages: a polite discussion that plummets, with gut-wrenching speed and intensity, into a no-feelings-spared showdown. The two actors expertly chart the arc of flaring tempers, but the movie asks much more from them than just vitriol; doing some of the most emotionally textured work of their respective careers, they map lines of compassion, resentment, and stress across their own famous features.
As its dueling posters indicate, this is meant to be a balanced war of the roses. Certainly, Baumbach doesn’t spare Charlie, his probable (if loose) stand-in, a big share of the blame; in so much as Marriage Story can explain something as hard to explain as a failed marriage, his selfishness is a key culprit. All the same, the film can’t help but gravitate to Charlie’s perspective; it’s much more precise on his exasperation with the maddening, money-draining legal battle than on the unhappiness that drove Nicole away. Yet Baumbach, who knows the headaches and heartache of this subject personally, has no shortage of empathy to spread among his characters, even as he recognizes their desire for a clean, uncomplicated separation as a fantasy: the shared delusion of two people not quite ready to face the full reality of why things didn’t work out between them. Marriage Story, unlike so many other breakup movies, offers venom in drips and drops instead of drowning us in it, because it knows that no matter how far apart Charlie and Nicole drift, the feelings that first brought them together are still there, informing their flawed attempts to move on without destroying each other. That’s especially poignant, coming as it does from a filmmaker who sometimes wields his wit like a pocket knife.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Toronto International Film Festival.