Divorce isn’t exactly a subject that sounds enticing or inherently cinematic. But writer-director Noah Baumbach, who’s known for crafting films that deal with various aspects of the human condition with a balance of humor and drama, seems the perfect creative force to give that story life on film. And Marriage Story, his latest film about the dissolution of a marriage, captures the comedy and the heartbreak in the most painful of emotional situations, with two of the greatest performances of the year in Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.
The two A-list talents star as Nicole and Charlie, an actor and stage director whose marriage is dissolving. Nicole feels as if she’s been living Charlie’s life with him in New York, and is eager to find herself in Los Angeles, where she is offered a role in a pilot. Nicole’s family also lives out there. But Charlie is intent on continuing his creative pursuits in New York, unwilling to move coast-to-coast. And right in the middle of all of this is Nicole and Charlie’s young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). And when amicability isn’t enough to figure things out, Nicole goes ahead and hires notable lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), who proves both understanding and cutthroat in her efforts to win their case. This leaves Charlie to reluctantly find one for himself.
As they get farther along in the divorce process, the increasingly tense conflict pushes Nicole and Charlie to their emotional breaking points. Nobody’s a winner in this conflict, as much as the combating lawyers might want them to believe. And it’s in the most difficult of times that Nicole and Charlie must figure out how to balance what’s best for themselves and what’s best for their child. And all throughout Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach manages to remain empathetic to both parties as he examines the emotional complexities of ending a marriage.
Baumbach’s script for Marriage Story is perceptive and clever, without ever feeling over-written or on-the-nose about its observations. There are multiple extended scenes, where characters converse in ways that feel understandable and immediately relatable in their naturalistic realism. And through the naturalistic dialogue, Baumbach shows us the complex feelings that come to the surface. Nicole and Charlie clearly care for one another, but their goals and ambitions are (quite literally) miles apart.
They don’t want the other to suffer, which becomes an inevitability when lawyers get involved. Seemingly inconsequential bits of dialogue between Nicole and Charlie leading up to the trial end up being used as weapons by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, both of whom are given fully-fledged characters who have their own opinions and frustrations beyond just being cogs in the divorce machine. Dern, especially, has an exquisitely fierce feminine energy reminiscent of her character in Big Little Lies. Alan Alda also brings a warmth as Charlie’s sensitive lawyer, who sees him as a human being instead of a transaction.
Everyone shines in Marriage Story, but the film belongs to Johansson and Driver, who give two of their best performances to-date. Scarlett gets to play a character who practically overflows with personality and dimension, and the actress brings a real sensitivity and honesty to Nicole. She has a scene with Laura Dern’s Nora, in which she explains her past with Charlie and why she wants a divorce. And Johansson imbues the lengthy scene with so many small gestures and moments that could seem overly staged in the wrong hands. But she makes it all feel so raw and real, to the point that you forget you’re watching an actor almost immediately. It’s magic.
Adam Driver gives Charlie a great deal of shading and complexity, not least of which in a scene where he sings Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” at a moment of great emotional distress. Both actors give the same depth of feeling and naturalism to both the big and small moments, making you believe in and understand their feelings, motivations, and troubles every step of the way. An argument between the two at the center of Marriage Story is as emotionally raw and powerfully acted as anything I’ve seen this year. And it’s what happens when you combine exceptional writing and exceptional actors saying the words.
And amidst all the tempestuousness, Buambach manages to find the humor in the awkward situations that arise in the divorce process. When Nicole wants her sister (a delightfully kooky Merrit Wever) to serve Charlie, they try to plan it out to be as natural as possible. Surely enough, it doesn’t go exactly as intended, getting funnier and funnier before Charlie is hit with the reality of the situation. Another scene involving a socially awkward social worker and Charlie is hilarious in its awkwardness. It just keeps getting funnier with each passing minute, without losing sight of the truth of the scene.
Baumbach, cinematographer Robbie Ryan, and editor Jennifer Lame frame and edit the film in a very understated, non-showy way that allows us to be a fly on the wall in following our protagonists’ respective experiences. But every now and then, Baumbach and his crew will incorporate very specific framing and edits that are devastatingly poetic in visually representing Nicole and Charlie’s separation. One scene, which involves shutting a gate, rapidly cuts as Nicole and Charlie make eye contact just before a barrier comes between them. Another scene uses a dissolve to cut between Nicole’s left-centered profile and Charlie’s right-centered profile. The two are in this together, even though they are moving apart.
Marriage Story is a full-hearted look at the heartbreak of divorce, written and directed with naturalism and grace, and acted by actors at the peak of their talents. Seek this one out at a theater near you. Or, if you prefer to have a cathartic cry in the comfort of your own home, check it out when it hits Netflix on December 6. Either way, prepare to be emotionally moved in more ways than one.
Marriage Story is rated R, and it is currently playing in limited theaters before it releases on Netflix on December 6.
All images courtesy of Netflix.