The title of Noah Baumbach’s emotionally-charged, fractured-family drama “Marriage Story” is dripping with irony. It could more accurately be called a divorce story, but one full of personal reflections on a marriage that was. It’s also one of the rawest and most authentic looks at divorce ever put on screen. Obviously that doesn’t make it an easy watch, but it is an incredibly affecting one.
But there is a better way to read the title. It could just as easily be a reference to the stories told by the two leads to friends, therapists, and eventually lawyers. Their stories are rooted in their perspectives of what went wrong with their marriage and with what drove them to such a contentious split. And in one of the sadder turns, they eventually lose control of their stories to the lawyers who ensure things only get uglier and more painful.
While not all of Baumbach’s movies emotionally register with me, they’re never boring and they display an unabashed humanity that never comes across as disingenuous. His “Marriage Story” script is one of the most real and brutally honest works of his career. He puts aside the acid-tongued wit for more verisimilitude and veracity. But that doesn’t mean the humor isn’t there. The moments of levity Baumbach injects are welcomed and also quite funny.
I love the way the film opens. A New York couple (which becomes a significant point of debate later on) take turns telling us what they love about each other. It’s sweet, heartfelt, and organic. But it’s also Baumbach throwing us a curveball. It turns out that the words are part of an exercise they’re doing for a separation therapist. The session doesn’t go well and we quickly sense the couple’s relationship has reached the point of no return.
While Baumbach’s script is among the year’s best, his character-driven story hinges on its two Oscar-caliber lead performances. Adam Driver plays Charlie, an avant-garde stage prodigy whose small theater company is on the verge of hitting it big. His lead actress is his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a former teen movie up-and-comer who left her film career behind to help Charlie produce plays in New York. The two get married and have a son Henry (Azhy Robertson).
But we learn that over a fairly short period of time their marriage has crumbled. They agree to handle their separation amicably and without involving lawyers. Nicole is offered the lead role in a new television pilot so she leaves the theater and flies to Los Angeles with Henry. Charlie, naively thinking Nicole’s move is temporary, stays in New York preparing his play for its big Broadway debut.
In LA Nicole breaks the news to her mother (the delightfully spacey Julie Hagerty) and her high-strung big sister (Merritt Wever), both of who are divorced themselves. While on the set of her new show Nicole is convinced by one of her producers (who also happens to be divorced) to hire high-profile celebrity attorney Nora Fanshaw (yep, divorced). She’s shrewd, cut-throat and played with unbridled confidence by a fantastic Laura Dern.
When Charlie flies to LA to see Henry he’s blindsided with divorce papers from Nicole and told to lawyer-up tossing their previous agreement out the window. The first attorney Charlie meets (Ray Liotta) plays dirty like Nora but is too expense (and looks to be divorced). So he settles for a semi-retired family lawyer named Bert Spitz (Alan Alda in another great bit of casting). He’s far more easy-going and appeasing. Oh, and he has been divorced three times! Do you sense a trend?
As the lawyers become more involved things get nastier and Baumbach wisely lets it play out at a very natural pace. We are fed bits of information through conversations and confessions that give us a clearer vision of both Charlie and Nicole. They’re both flawed and with the exception of one sin Charlie commits (which I could have done without) its easy for us to be empathetic. The movie maintains a delicate balance, making no judgments and keeping our sympathies shifting back-and-forth. But overall we can’t help but root for both.
So we end up with a heart-wrenching account of a crumbled relationship, the ugliness of the divorce process, and its sad, complex aftermath. Baumbach drives his story with rich narrative detail, often building to scenes of painful, visceral release. Take what may be the film’s signature sequence where an argument between Nicole and Charlie savagely escalates to a devastating crescendo. The script’s candor along with the ferocity of both Driver and Johansson makes for a bruising exchange. It’s tough to watch but it is mesmerizing cinema.
“Marriage Story” has a lot to say about modern marriage and with such painfully high divorce numbers it’s sure to resonate with a great many people. And as we sit back and observe this cross-country separation Baumbach gives us lots to consider: relationships are tough, splitting up is tougher, and for some lawyers divorce is a lucrative business. More importantly he reminds us that those effected are real people and no one is left unscathed.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS