Noah Baumbach’s new film is actually a divorce story, in which the painful breaking up of a couple played by Scarlet Johansson and Adam Driver, is depicted with humor and some hard-earned wisdom.
Noah Baumbach’s new film is called Marriage Story. As you might expect from a writer and director with a humorous and ironic view of life, the title is misleading. This is actually a divorce story, but in the telling we experience some of the common traits of marriage that we’d rather not think about most of the time.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play Charlie and Nicole, living in Brooklyn with their eight-year-old son, Henry. The movie opens with them describing, in separate voice-overs, what they love about the other person. The descriptions are generous, sometimes even beautiful, and so we begin to settle in to a vision of young married bliss. But it turns out that they wrote these statements on the instructions of a mediator, as part of an exercise to stress positive feelings before they separate. In the session, Nicole seems irritated and says she won’t read her paper, and so the exercise ends in failure.
This couple isn’t meant to represent average, everyday people. Baumbach comes from a show business background, and so Charlie and Nicole are from the same world. Nicole was an up-and-coming actress that made a splash in a teen sex comedy. She then met Charlie by chance when she went to an off-Broadway play. Turns out he was the director, and she teamed up with him and helped him turn his theater company into a success. Then his star rose, and he became famous as a kind of genius, while she remained an actress in his plays, gradually coming to feel that she didn’t have much of a voice of her own. When she got offered a part in a television series, which meant moving to L.A., he was unenthusiastic, and she realized that he wasn’t listening to her or really caring about her needs, which eventually steered her towards divorce. Charlie’s reaction was slow, as if he didn’t quite believe what was happening.
The previews set this up as being a comedy, showing a lot of the funnier parts. There is plenty of humor here, as in all of Baumbach’s films, but the intent is to really get into the issues and feelings that come up around divorce, not to make fun of it or satirize it. And so, in fact, Marriage Story has a bittersweet feeling to it, a real sense of loss that tears at your heart even as you’re seeing some of the comic aspects. It’s very fair. Not only do both husband and wife have legitimate claims to our sympathy, they try as best as they can to be fair with each other. But best intentions get lost along the way. Nicole hires a lawyer who’s been recommended to her; the lawyer is played by Laura Dern, as a sweetly supportive but somewhat phony southern California type. Charlie shifts indecisively between a combative lawyer played like a maniac by Ray Liotta, and a mild avuncular man of wisdom who is a bit too mellow, played by Alan Alda. Of course, the question of custody of their son becomes a real source of anxiety and conflict.
All the acting is great, including Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s mom, and Wallace Shawn as an absurdly egotistical actor friend. Adam Driver shows a full range of emotion, and proves that he can make you cry. I’d forgotten whether or not Scarlett Johansson could act. For a long time she has seemed remote to me in her various blockbuster movies. Well, it turns out she can. I think she’s very good in this, very genuine. The two of them demonstrate the worst and the best that a married couple can be.
My only reservations are that the lawyers yell at each other in divorce court in a way that I’m not sure would be allowed in reality, but I have to give Baumbach some fictional license in that regard. And having Nicole and Charlie sing two different Stephen Sondheim songs in different contexts seems almost too pointed, although the songs are great.
Finally, I suspect that people won’t understand or enjoy this movie unless they’ve been married or been in a long-term relationship. Now, maybe that sounds like a strange thing to say. But without knowing what it’s like, single people might wonder why these people act the way they do. But married people, I think, can identify with the emotional highs and lows, the bliss and the intensity, the reason and the unreason, on display here.
Marriage Story can be painful to watch, sad and even bewildering. But it’s also oddly hopeful. We can move on in life without giving up on love.