Marriage Story, from writer/director Noah Baumbach, begins amidst the dying embers of a decade-long relationship. And while the story’s two soon-to-be divorced parents start the film with the best of intentions, things get messy as their petty grievances snowball into an avalanche of resentment.
Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) spent their entire marriage working together in a New York-based theatre company; Charlie as an auteur director; Nicole as an actor and once-promising Hollywood starlet. We first meet them running through lists of things they love about their former partners.
This standout moment is as informative as it is charming, and it reveals the consideration Baumbach placed into these two rich characters. But the kind words are a feint, and we learn that these generous descriptions are phase one of their divorce mediation. The Nicole and Charlie love train left town long before we arrived.
Their relationship may be over, but the former couple thinks of themselves as rational, level-headed adults. And for the sake of their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), they agree to an amicable split – no lawyers needed. But everything changes after Nicole heads to Los Angeles to shoot a TV pilot. The truce goes up in flames once Nicole brings her flashy lawyer (Laura Dern) into the picture. A custody tug-of-war leads to bitterness, animosity, and explosive confrontations.
Driver and Johansson bring their A-games to Baumbach’s deeply personal material (Marriage Story features parallels to the filmmaker’s divorce from his famous former partner). And Baumbach gives his actors a steady supply of first-class material to work with. Nicole and Charlie both have their flaws, and when they verbally attack each other, the claws come out.
A lesser film would paint Nicole and Charlie’s behaviour as cruel and petty. But both actors find the humanity in their character and ground them in sympathetic feelings. Baumbach presents two wounded people who lash out because they’re hurt and afraid. Even though people will take sides, the movie doesn’t cast either of them as a villain.
Marriage Story features some fun performances from the supporting players. Dern, follows up her knockout work on Big Little Lies with another bold and confident character. It’s a treat watching Dern’s divorce lawyer, Nora Fanshaw, go from charming to ruthless in the blink of an eye. And Ray Liotta has fun as Charlie’s cutthroat lawyer who goes from callous to super callous in the blink of an eye.
Baumbach takes on one of adulthood’s most complicated situations, a breakup, and makes the story feel relatable, even if you’ve never lived through a messy one yourself. Most impressive is how compassionate the screenplay is towards both characters. A divorce doesn’t make you stop loving someone cold turkey, no matter how bad they hurt you. And Marriage Story captures that tempestuous push and pull between those old kind feelings and searing animosity. You can love and hate somebody at the same time. And having Nicole and Charlie’s small acts of kindness interspersed with their ferocious arguments feels like a punch to the gut.
As gloomy as this story gets, it still features Baumbach’s signature wit and charm. His characters run the spectrum from rich and fully formed, to borderline Muppets. Nicole’s mother (Julie Hagerty), as well-intentioned as she may be, is a total nonsense person. I mean this in the best possible way. The same goes for Wallace Shawn’s attention-seeking theatre actor. They’re wonderful respites from all the heartache Baumbach rains down on you.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan finds creative ways to depict Charlie and Nicole’s growing divide visually. He also does an excellent job framing these radiant actors in ways that make the most of their knockout performances. When Nicole and Charlie burst into impassioned monologues, it’s like the rest of the world melts away as we close in on their anguished faces. And if you needed any more reasons to run for a tissue box, Randy Newman’s wistful score will pry open your tear ducts.
I love the grace notes Baumbach places in his films, and Marriage Story has some beautiful flourishes. Charlie, a man who feels like he’s being phased out of his son’s life, goes out for Halloween dressed as The Invisible Man. How perfect is that? Baumbach uses his masterful command of cinematic language to create an emotionally devastating film that entertains you on every level. With its gripping story, heartbreaking themes, and A+ performances from Johansson and Driver, Marriage Story is easily one of the year’s best movies.