“Marriage Story” has a funny way of turning into one of 2019’s most memorable cinematic experiences. Audiences will recognize it early on in the film, as its astonishingly charming, romantic opening quickly evaporates to find its leads seated in the colorless office of a marriage mediator.
It’s a clever gut punch. Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) begins by reading through the mediator’s assignment, a list of things that he loves about his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and she follows with her own list of things she loves about Charlie. She stops herself, unable to carry on with reciting the mandated reflection. The couple’s interaction is visibly tense and unstable, and it’s clear that this marriage story will not end well.
The opening captures what works so well in writer and director Noah Baumbach’s newest and finest film: an exquisite balance of humor, charm and honest heartbreak. In spite of Baumbach’s own publicized experience with a coast-to-coast divorce, the film doesn’t deliberately favor one side over another, offering both of its lead characters sympathy and plenty of room to examine and theorize their individual histories and desires.
Baumbach tells the story of Charlie, an acclaimed theater director based in New York City, and Nicole, an actress who wants to leave the East Coast theater scene for the film and television industry in Los Angeles. Geography is merely one factor that adds strain to the Barbers’ marriage, which, while never fully explained, is characterized by professional and personal differences and an inherent power dynamic. Still, the couple chooses to remain friends and splits on the best terms possible, avoiding divorce lawyers and prioritizing the needs of their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).
Things get complicated when Nicole and Charlie each hire lawyers to help them negotiate terms of separation and custody. The Barbers’ attempt at a civil divorce is quickly turned hostile, as each party’s lawyer finds a way to paint the other in a negative light.
The scenes in “Marriage Story” that involve the divorce lawyers give the film — one that otherwise feels incredibly genuine — its rare moments of outlandishness, thanks to the talent of its supporting cast. Laura Dern channels a supremely Hollywood energy as the elegant and shrewd family lawyer Nora Fanshaw, who represents Nicole. Bert Spitz, Charlie’s first lawyer (Alan Alda) is a humorous, kind and gentle presence for much of the film, but Charlie quickly grows tired of his naivete. He resorts to seeking the help of Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), a much more aggressive, crude figure in Los Angeles family law.
The cartoonish performances of Dern, Alda and Liotta, collectively serving as a critique of the extremities of the divorce industry, are in sharp contrast to the raw, powerful performances of both Johansson and Driver in their lead roles. Johansson carries a strong presence in the first act of the film, which delves into the specifics of her perspective and experiences. In one particularly memorable monologue, Nicole explains to Nora what exactly led her to her breaking point in her marriage; it becomes clear that this is her first chance to truly contemplate the situation. Johansson is fascinating in this scene, disappearing into the character and delivering every line of dialogue with legitimacy and ease.
After that, the film quickly becomes Driver’s property. Charlie is the film’s most complex character, initially set up as relatively unsympathetic: He is clearly affectionate toward his family, friends and colleagues, but is prideful, opinionated and has an ego to boot. But Driver’s portrayal of Charlie is honest and sympathetic, never shying away from the character’s flaws while clearly demonstrating his anger, despair and hopelessness as he begins to lose control over the dynamics and proceedings of the separation. We see him experience a spectrum of emotions, from a critical interaction with Johansson’s character in which he screams his frustrations at the top of his lungs to a mesmerizing scene in which he demonstrates his acceptance by belting out a Stephen Sondheim number at a New York City bar.
Driver’s performance may be the central force of “Marriage Story,” but it’s his scenes with Johansson, and Robertson as the pair’s son, that serve as the film’s heart. Baumbach’s true-to-life script allows the performances in these moments especially to shine, and regardless of what else audiences may choose to draw from it, it’s the authenticity behind these moments that so beautifully captures, as Sondheim would put it, “being alive.”