A BREAKUP STORY
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver Break Each Other’s Hearts in the Exquisite ‘Marriage Story’
Director Noah Baumbach’s devastating portrait of divorce features two of the year’s finest performances courtesy of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.
At its worst—and I can speak from experience—divorce is simultaneously like death and war: an end to the life you had and the future you imagined, and a battle of unimaginable acrimony and anguish. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story—the centerpiece selection of this year’s New York Film Festival, set to premiere in theaters on Nov. 6 and on Netflix on Dec. 6—understands this on a profound level, charting the disintegration of a couple with an incisiveness, and mordant sense of humor, that’s wrenching in its authenticity. Led by two of the year’s finest performances courtesy of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as an artistic pair brought to figurative blows, it’s a superlative drama about the trauma of separation, and the scars it leaves.
If you’ve never been through a divorce, it’ll scare the hell out of you. And if you have, it’ll break your heart.
A companion piece of sorts to 2005’s The Squid and the Whale (which was partly based on the disintegration of his parents’ marriage, and told from an adolescent perspective), and undoubtedly influenced by his own split from first wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, Marriage Story is Baumbach’s most assured work to date. That’s evident from the outset, in which we’re presented with respective montages of Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver)—she detailing his best qualities via narration, and vice versa—going about their day-to-day duties as spouses, artists (he’s a director of plays, and she’s his star actress) and parents to 8-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Upon concluding, it’s revealed that their comments have been penned for use in a mediation session as a way to start their separation proceedings on a positive, remembering-the-good note.
It’s a conventionally nice thought that inevitably fails, as Nicole proves uninterested in reading aloud the nicey-nice things she thinks about her soon-to-be ex. Although they’re still living together in their Brooklyn apartment, a post-show cast party finds the two situated at different tables, and leaving abruptly to ride the subway home in silence, with Baumbach positioning them at opposite ends of the car, divided in the frame by a center-aisle pole, with Charlie standing and Nicole sitting. It’s far from the last image of disconnection and alienation—later shots of Charlie stranded amidst a crowd of Times Square pedestrians as he receives a horrific phone call, and wandering amongst a sea of California rental cars, similarly suggest the duo’s forlorn isolation.
At the same time, Baumbach keeps his camera close to his leads’ faces, capturing their suffering and sorrow in exacting detail. Having nabbed an audition for a TV pilot, Nicole travels with Henry to her native Los Angeles, where she stays with her intrusive mom (Julie Hagerty) and flustered sister (Merritt Wever). Though initially interested in handling the divorce amicably, she visits attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), whose oh-so-understanding attitude—augmented by her wonderful tea and cookies—is tactical through and through. It’s also successful, inducing Nicole to open up about the displacement and loss-of-identity and agency issues that, more than Charlie’s infidelity, drove her to embark on her present course. In a prolonged take that’s as aesthetically subtle as it is emotionally revealing, a magnificent Johansson guides us through Nicole’s winding interior journey of recollection, analysis and self-assertion—a development that’s as eye-opening to us as it seems to be for her.
Divorce papers are subsequently filed, and served to a blindsided Charlie during his visit to L.A. In turn, he sees cutthroat shark Jay (Ray Liotta), who terrifies him with talk of a forthcoming cataclysmic conflict. He opts instead to go with welcoming lawyer Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), whose I’m-your-friend shtick and promises of avoiding court soon ring hollow. Escalation follows escalation. Nicole attempts to establish herself and Henry as California residents. Charlie fights that effort, arguing that they were always a New York clan. Catch-22s materialize, with Charlie realizing that getting a place in L.A. helps Nicole’s contention that they’re a West Coast-based family, while staying in New York aids her chances of securing sole custody. Panic gives way to frustration gives way to tears gives way to ire, all of it coming to a head during a quarrel between Charlie and Nicole that deteriorates into wall-punching, finger-pointing confessions of their deepest, darkest, ugliest resentments.
That Marriage Story manages to be funny at routine intervals is a near miracle, given that its every moment feels ripped from raw, miserable reality, whether it’s Charlie and Henry spending an afternoon being observed by a weirdo “evaluator,” or Jay and Nora nastily bickering in a courtroom populated by waiting-their-turn couples and in front of an indifferent judge. In these spaces, judgment is everywhere, thus compelling everyone to engage in keeping-up-appearances performances. It’s enough to trigger any divorcée’s PTSD, and that goes double for Jay’s introductory doom-and-gloom-and-strategy meeting, which is so true to life that, in a few minutes’ time, Liotta almost steals the entire film (by which I mean, incites seismic heart palpitations).
Baumbach’s screenplay is scalpel-sharp. His dialogue is rife with exchanges that seem trivial on the surface but are loaded with spiteful meaning, and his staging is awash in sideways glances and minor gestures that are coiled with fury. Nonetheless, it’s his performers—always front and center in one painfully intimate composition after another—who carry Marriage Story’s contentious load. His face fluctuating between downtrodden desperation and lashing-out rage, Driver evokes Charlie’s agony with nuance and intensity, peaking with his showstopping rendition of “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Likewise gifted with a Company number (“You Could Drive a Person Crazy”) that speaks to her condition and trajectory, Johansson is more than Driver’s equal, conveying Nicole’s increasingly hardened resolve without sacrificing the grief and confusion underscoring her state of mind—culminating with a climactic reaction shot in a bathroom doorway, full of anger, bitterness, appreciation and hope, that’s as good as any big-screen acting this year. Together, they deftly express how divorce amplifies the worst of us and blights out the best, leading only to vitriol, sadness and ruin.
To a degree even greater than its spiritual forefathers Kramer vs. Kramer and Shoot the Moon, Marriage Story considers the positions of its dueling protagonists with an even-handed empathy that also, ultimately, extends to Henry, an unsteady boy caught (at one point, literally) in the middle of a tug-of-war that can have no clear-cut winner. And in its penultimate scene, it achieves a measure of poignant, tragic grace, via both its portrait of divorce as the last act of a long-running story which began with ecstatic promise—as well as its recognition that, even after the papers are signed and the ordeal is over, the memories of those happier times linger on.