“I feel like I’m in a dream,” Charlie (Adam Driver) tells Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) the moment after she serves him divorce papers. The papers aren’t a surprise—he knew this day was coming, and there’s little indication that he believes that their differences are, as they say, reconcilable. For both parties, it’s more the how of the moment that’s so strange: in someone else’s kitchen out in California instead of in their own home in New York, and by her sister (Merritt Wever), because of course the law says that Nicole can’t hand Charlie the papers herself. It’s not the way either of these soon to be exes imagined this seminal moment in their lives transpiring. Of course, there was a time that neither of them could imagine being in the situation at all. That’s the thing about divorce: It’s pretty surreal no matter whose kitchen you’re standing in.

There’s a certain screwball energy to the beats leading up to this stunned interaction, and that, coupled with the specificity of the unease, marks it plainly as a Noah Baumbach scene. Baumbach, writer and director of whip-smart comedies like Frances Ha, Margot At The Wedding, and While We’re Young, has over the years become one of our most reliable observers (and provokers!) of human discomfort—a kind of anthropologist of neurosis, particularly of the East Coast variety. Marriage Story (Grade: A-), his woundingly perceptive new movie, finds him applying that expertise to a huge subject: the emotional and legal quagmire of divorce, which he unpacks with an almost procedural exhaustiveness. This is a film, a deeply thoughtful and empathetic one, about how difficult it is—logistically, on top of all the messy feelings—to end a marriage.

We first meet Charlie and Nicole through what may be the most beautiful single passage of Baumbach’s career: two consecutive montages, cut with the signature snap and flow of editor Jennifer Lame, that lay out what each of the spouses cherishes about the other. It is, essentially, an ode to their love and what sustained it. It’s also, as we find out, something foisted upon them—statements they’ve been asked to write by the therapist mediating their separation. Charlie, an acclaimed stage director, wants to stay in New York and continue funneling his energy into the theater company the two built together. Nicole, lead performer of the company, wants to return to Los Angeles and re-jump her screen career—she’s scored a pilot after years away from Hollywood. The two are at an impasse, though the geographical dispute is really just the most tangible of the issues that have grown between them. That they have a young son of course complicates the matter of where they live.

The separation begins amicably, neither Charlie nor Nicole wanting to make the process harder on the other. But then the lawyers get involved, and things get personal. Baumbach applies his incisive laser-pointer focus to the tiny frustrations and absurdities of the process: the challenge of obtaining counsel when one party has already talked to many of the best lawyers in town; the way residency, and when and where a case begins, sets the terms of a custody dispute; the truly bizarre system of negotiation through proxy, two lawyers speaking on behalf of their clients, but not always capturing their tone or intention. What Marriage Story understands is that the whole system can seem designed to make people hate each other, the better to benefit their representation. (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta deliver pitch-perfect supporting performances as the pair’s respective attorneys, speaking a combative language that’s like a distilled form of Charlie and Nicole’s resentment for each other, minus any of the leavening compassion.) At the same time, the film suggests that the pair’s desire to slide easily out of their union is a kind of fantasy; they have things they need to say to each other, and not quietly.

Speaking of which, Marriage Story boasts its own addition to the canon of great movie spats, a discussion that escalates with gut-wrenching speed and intensity into a no-feelings-spared showdown. Driver and Johansson, offering some of the most nuanced acting of their careers, expertly chart the arc of flaring emotions during this devastating sequence. But the movie asks much more from them than just vitriol; Baumbach locates a greater understanding of this common ordeal in their layered, grounded performances—in the cocktail of bitterness and lingering affection they both stir up.

Once upon a time, the filmmaker might have made a truly caustic study of romance gone wrong; in fact, he already did that, from a different perspective, in The Squid And The Whale, the film that truly announced him as an artist able to straddle lines of drama and comedy in pursuit of truths about modern society. So confidently made (and so expertly shot in 35mm) that it almost seems to have been pulled from the arthouse renaissance of the 197os—a time when American directors were hustling to compete with the imported visions of Bergman, Fellini, etc.—Marriage Story offers venom in drips and drops instead of drowning us in it, because it knows that no matter how far apart these two drift, the feelings that first brought them together are still there, informing their flawed attempts to move on without destroying each other. The title, as it turns out, isn’t ironic. This is the story of a marriage, just one told through its conclusion. It’s also Baumbach’s most mature and least comic work—though the latter is obviously a relative distinction, given how much inspired humor he still manages to slip into the proceedings, narrative and legal alike.

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Uncut Gems
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

The director’s last movie, The Meyerowitz Stories, also felt like a refinement of his language and technique, albeit one closer in spirit to the fast-talking comedies in which he generally specializes. Its greatest feat, perhaps, was coaxing a truly restrained, touching performance out of Adam Sandler. The Safdie brothers, NYC filmmakers of a much grungier sensibility, get something just as impressive out of the Sandman in their chaotic new Tri-state character study, Uncut Gems (Grade: B+). Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a jeweler who lives his life in a state of constant, self-inflicted chaos, gambling huge sums of money he owes to loan sharks and constantly chasing some new score. When we first see the actor, he looks and sounds a little like his Jack And Jill costar (and Dunkacino spokesman) Al Pacino. But like so many of the SNL alum’s good performances, this one doesn’t so much break from his signature qualities as amplify and re-contexualize them. Uncut Gems casts him as a tornado of bad judgment—a man so profoundly irritating to almost everyone in his life that he seems on the verge of getting clocked in the face at all times.

Howard, early in the movie, gets his hands on a rock embedded with kaleidoscopically colorful Ethiopian gems. It becomes the catalyst for a caper of pure self-destruction, as this wheeler-and-dealer tries to keep multiple balls in the air (literally, given how the real Kevin Garnett factors into the plot), outrunning creditors and compounding the stakes of a very foolish hustle. In the Sandcanon, Uncut Gems makes that famously nervous passage of Punch Drunk Love look relaxing. It’s nearly two and a half hours of pure stress (ours and his), audaciously exacerbated by one of the Safdies’ typically abrasive soundscapes: overlapping dialogue, obnoxious noises (like the persistent buzz of a broken automatic door lock), an electronic score that seems intent occasionally on drowning everything else out. But the real source of anxiety is Howard himself, and Sandler somehow manages to make him both totally exasperating and oddly magnetic—we watch his foolhardy flirtation with ruin in a state of shocked disbelief that borders on admiration. It’s a performance as live-wire exciting as the one the Safdies got out of Robert Pattinson in Good Time. And the movie itself is exhilarating. Just bring a Xanax.