Marriage Story begins with a fake-out. Via voiceover, spouses Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) enumerate the things, big and small, that they adore about each other: she’s an unparalleled listener, an expert gift giver, an “infectious” dancer; he’s a natural with their young son, a surprisingly great dresser, cries at movies. Glimpses of their shabby-chic domestic contentment are shown as a bittersweet Randy Newman score swells. It’s all warmly romantic in a grounded, adult way.
Alas, those lists aren’t Valentine’s Day cards Charlie and Nicole have written for one another, or an intimacy exercise meant to draw them closer. They’re something a mediator has asked the pair to cobble together to kick off their separation in good faith. On the surface, this is indeed not a tale of love, but of mounting mutual hostility — though as Noah Baumbach’s wounding, masterly new film argues, the line between those sentiments can be agonizingly blurry.
Viewers who dug the relative mellowness of Baumbach’s last effort, 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), should brace themselves: Like Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage — an inevitable influence — this is a tough piece of work, steeped in pain that feels wincingly immediate (it’s based on Baumbach’s own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh) and unsparing in its willingness to observe, at sometimes startling emotional proximity, good people at their worst.
It’s also funny and, when you least expect it (and most need it), almost unbearably tender, thanks in large part to the sensational leads, who deliver the deepest, most alive and attuned performances of their careers. Marriage Story puts you through the wringer, but leaves you exhilarated at having witnessed a filmmaker and his actors surpass themselves.
Baumbach’s movies tend to elicit disapproving murmurs about navel-gazing and score-settling, and this will be no exception. It’s sturdy enough to withstand the criticism; few current American writer-directors are plumbing their personal histories as profoundly.
The juxtaposition of the film’s moony opening montage with the tense mediation scene that follows generates suspense: What went wrong between Charlie and Nicole? But Marriage Story finds Baumbach in an expectation-confounding mood; rather than a wistful postmortem of a failed romance à la Annie Hall, the movie offers a chronicle of conflictedness, and of how a relationship changes — flails, explodes, evolves — over the course of divorce proceedings. Along the way, we grasp the dynamic that led to this particular marital collapse, but that is neither Baumbach’s point nor his purpose.
When we meet them, Charlie is a Brooklyn theater director and Nicole, having turned down a few lucrative offers in Hollywood, his company’s leading lady. After they split up, Nicole takes their 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and moves back to her native Los Angeles to shoot a TV pilot. She spends time with her daffy mother (Julie Hagerty), a former actress herself, and sister (the scene-stealing Merritt Wever). A new life starts to take form.
The challenge is figuring out where Charlie fits into it. Deciding to make their separation official, Nicole consults high-powered divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (played to savage perfection by Laura Dern). Staying friends with her ex-husband is the priority, Nicole insists. “We’ll do it as gently as possible,” Nora reassures her. Uh-huh.
Nicole tells Nora her side of the story, recounting how her identity — her ideas, personality and ambitions — gradually became secondary to, and then swallowed by, Charlie’s. The substance of the monologue is familiar: A woman finds herself shrinking in the shadow of her husband’s ego and needs. But Baumbach shoots it in a few long takes, the camera slowly closing in on Nicole, and the whirlpool of feelings Johansson conjures — the nostalgia, the churning vulnerability, the currents of shame and self-loathing — is astonishing.
Nicole’s desire to spend more time in L.A., we learn, was a major point of contention during the marriage, and remains so during the divorce. Though his work is still in New York, Charlie — after meeting with two drastically different lawyers (Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, both in fine, mischievous form) — establishes part-time residency near Nicole in order to negotiate shared custody of Henry. A new normal is established, with pickups and drop-offs, exorbitant legal fees and awkward conversations.
The exes still care about each other, as is illustrated by two moments of gentle heartbreak — one in which Nicole trims Charlie’s hair, another in which she orders lunch for him at a settlement conference. Among the movie’s most piercing insights is that divorce, even when necessary, isn’t always intuitive; sometimes it’s an act of self-abnegation, contrary to what the heart wants and requiring an almost cruel degree of discipline.
It can also snowball, taking on proportions of unpleasantness that dwarf or obscure the reasons it was pursued in the first place. Other American films about divorce (a mini-canon that includes Kramer vs. Kramer, Shoot the Moon and, yes, The War of the Roses) have portrayed this phenomenon — the legal process driving and shaping the couple’s feelings rather than vice versa — but none with the force and clarity of this one.
With the attorneys nudging them toward more aggressive stances, Charlie and Nicole face off in an argument of soul-shaking vitriol, their grievances surging forth like scorching lava. As the problems of their marriage are laid bare (his reflexive selfishness and infidelity, her tendency to cast herself as a victim), the scene captures more harrowingly than any I can remember how easily love can curdle into hate — the terrifying closeness of the two.
This all makes Marriage Story sound grimmer than it is. Baumbach has always been a master of high-toned cringe comedy, and there are laughs that leaven the mood here. A sequence in which Nicole’s mom and sister help her serve Charlie divorce papers is executed with giddy screwball snap. And when a poker-faced social worker (Martha Kelly) pays a visit to Charlie and Henry, the result is a stealth comic set piece that, in its unnerving way, is even more of a high-wire act than the swerve into country-house farce in Baumbach’s Mistress America.
Shooting on 35mm, the director — collaborating with DP Robbie Ryan — employs a spry, supple visual style, interspersing close-ups that capture subtle shifts in his actors’ faces with striking wider angles that draw attention to the physical distance between Charlie and Nicole, as well as their movements and body language around each other. The framing, staging and control over the flow of the action are confident, at times dazzling, though free of gratuitous flash or fuss. Objects, gestures and moments — a gate pulled shut, a shoelace being tied, an unexpected burst into song — are imbued, but never weighed down, with meaning. This is the work of a filmmaker in full command of his powers.
If there’s been a limitation in Baumbach’s movies, it’s a kind of narrowness in the conception of certain characters. Nicole Kidman’s monstrous mom in Margot at the Wedding and Driver’s insufferable hipster-fraud in While We’re Young, for example, contributed to a sense that those stories were rigged; there was no room to figure out what to make of these people, because Baumbach had already done it for us. Charlie and Nicole, on the other hand, are thrillingly complicated, written with a generous feel for the chaos and contradiction of human emotions.
Johansson can be a self-conscious performer, too busy chewing the inside of her mouth and gazing sultrily to really burrow into a role. Not so here. The actress makes you feel the clashing impulses and instincts — anger and longing, defiance and guilt, boldness and trepidation — in every step of Nicole’s transition into life without Charlie.
Driver has an even trickier task. Charlie isn’t an ostentatious narcissist like the patriarchs played by Jeff Daniels and Dustin Hoffman in Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale and The Meyerowitz Stories, respectively. He’s affable, affectionate and self-aware. But Charlie has had an eclipsing effect on the woman he loves, and Driver delivers a brilliantly inhabited and shaded portrait of a man who’s forced to reckon with that reality.
Some will say Marriage Story favors Charlie. He’s the filmmaker’s surrogate, and the second half, in particular, centers on his perspective and experience. But Baumbach is at once hard on, and forgiving of, the two characters, and audience sympathies will likely seesaw. It’s a testament to the film that by the time it reaches its delicate knockout of a conclusion, despite all Charlie and Nicole have said and done, the maddening mess they’ve made of things, we’ve come to love them both.
Production companies: Heyday Films, Netflix
Writer-director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Azhy Robertson
Producers: Noah Baumbach, David Heyman
Executive producer: Craig Shilowich
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Music: Randy Newman
Editor: Jennifer Lame
Production design: Jade Healy
Costume design: Mark Bridges
Casting: Douglas Aibel, Francine Maisler
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)