Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) are the toast of the New York City theatre scene, thanks to the success of their latest collaboration heading to Broadway. The Barbers should be ecstatic about finally reaching this milestone, but their pending divorce has taken the wind out of their sails. And this won’t be any divorce, it will be a bi-coastal divorce sure to push them to their limits. Nicole, an actor asked to take the lead in a new network pilot, heads to California to be closer to her family. Charlie, a stage director tethered to New York and his company, is fighting to bring Nicole and their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), back. Nicole and Charlie agreed beforehand that court wouldn’t be necessary, but once Nicole consults with a lawyer (Laura Dern in Big Little Lies mode), then lawyers became a must. With that move, the Barbers enter into a labyrinthine nightmare of a legal system. A system so ugly that even Nora (Dern) admits that the California Family Court “rewards bad behavior.” A bold statement coming from a person who poisons marriages for a living.
But so far the cost of their divorce hasn’t extended to their careers, well, at least not for Nicole. Her newfound freedom includes possibilities she didn’t seek out before, and her star is shining brighter than before. Charlie, on the other hand, keeps delaying his projects and planting more of himself in California with each successive trip. At his lawyer’s recommendation, he’s added an apartment near Nicole and Henry and is now borrowing props from his set designer to make the apartment look more livable to the social worker deciding who Henry gets to live with. One hilariously tragic incident occurs when Charlie avoids showing a knife trick to Henry to avoid the scrutiny of a child protective services agent. When she presses him to see the trick, he makes a mistake and bleeds profusely. Now, Charlie has a choice to make: die on the kitchen floor, or call the ambulance and risk the chance that it might damage his custody battle.
Baumbach has a satirist’s eye for detail, capturing the profoundly surreal world of divorce court and the dichotomy of NY/LA living. The first of many single-parent experiences for Charlie sees him taking Henry to convenience stores and unlit homes for his son’s second outing trick or treating. Henry just wants to go sleep, but Charlie is driven to make his outing as entertaining as Nicole’s. Adam Driver’s stranger in a strange land routine is further exacerbated by his Invisible Man costume in a sea of apathetic Los Angelenos. Even when trying to blend in, he sticks out like a sore thumb. Charlie’s naivete is further put on blast when interacting with his attorneys (a very game Alan Alda and Ray Liotta).
Marriage Story frames itself as a love story told through the lens of divorce. Doing so presents a challenge because divorce doesn’t just end a marriage, it destroys even the memory of it, leaving any semblance of love hard to find. Nowhere is this clearer than a court fight between Nicole and Charlie’ s attorneys where each lawyer uses a story from their past to paint them in an ugly light. Assigning blame to either spouse would be reductive, Noah Baumbach treads carefully to allow each viewer to relate with whichever side of the conflict they choose. Nicole feels suffocated by living a life where she had no say in the matter, she became a wife and mother in short order, with no real say in what that meant for her as a person. Charlie feels blindsided by a lack of communication that didn’t make him aware of the marital rot that lived beneath the floorboards.
A fiery confrontation that takes place between Charlie and Nicole was shot all the way through by Baumbach, with the director also giving additional notes to surprise the leads through each take. The devastating emotion on display by Johansson and Driver is enough to leave viewers debilitated. Baumbach captures the disconnect by separating Driver and Johansson in the frame, blowing up their faces so that there’s room for nothing on the screen except rage. Not to poison the film completely with discord, Marriage Story offers glimpses of happiness that Nicole and Charlie shared. Those pleasant moments of Charlie and Nicole’s union are relegated to the beginning of the film, where the couple lists things they still love about each other. Nicole falters when the therapist asks her to present her list. Whereas, Charlie is all too ready to present his list, hinting at one of the many reasons why the Barbers won’t/can’t stay together. Driver and Johansson truly make the most of their performances, creating real, flesh and blood characters that are as definitive to cinema as Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer.
You don’t have to be divorced to understand Marriage Story. If you’ve ever loved anyone at all, the film will hit you on multiple levels. The intimate gestures that were thrilling are made cold and impersonal by the passage of time and the transition into another relationship. Quirks that were once endearing become irritating flaws that fuel arguments. Those who know each other best can inflict the most pain. The last time that Baumbach tackled divorce was 2005’s The Squid and the Whale; that film was vitriolic and still made with a lot of pain. With time and distance, Marriage Story is given a clearer perspective of the process, veering between panic-inducing, funny, and deeply sad, while still capable of finding a great deal of love for its two leads.