The waterworks came for me right as Marriage Story began, with a pair of monologues detailing exactly what each member of its central couple love about each other.
The details and moments chosen by writer-director Noah Baumbach are devastating in their precision, encapsulating everything from the obviously good (her playfulness, his sensitivity) to the perfectly imperfect (she’s naturally sloppy, but “she tries for me”). It’s the language of long-term love, distilled down to a few spare sentences.
But these people aren’t getting married, they’re splitting up. These lists are an exercise meant to give each of them something to cling onto as the process of separation turns ugly.
Marriage Story isn’t about the ups and downs of a romantic relationship, but nor is it really about the severance of one.
From that lovey-dovey opening, we cut to Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) sniping at each other in a divorce mediator’s office. If it was clear that they were once very much in love, it’s equally obvious they’re very much out of it now. All that’s left to do now is go their separate ways, which is easier said than done when the center of their lives is their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).
The title seems intentionally ironic at first. While Marriage Story does explain the decline of Charlie and Nicole’s marriage, its focus is really the aftermath, the long and arduous process of breaking up. Both will start out with good intentions, vowing to stay friends and keep Henry’s best interests in mind. Both will be stunned at how nasty things get as they battle for custody from opposite sides of the country — he, a theater director, has remained in Brooklyn, while she, an actress, has moved to Los Angeles for a TV job.
It’s rocky terrain, but one Baumbach navigates with confidence. (He has some personal experience with these matters; he drew upon his parents’ divorce for 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, and went through his own divorce in 2013.) He captures the surreality of the byzantine legal proceedings required to disentangle Nicole and Charlie’s lives — the weaponization of a marriage’s private negotiations, the emphasis on what looks good over what is true, the chumminess of opposing lawyers outside of court.
Marriage Story may have a more tragic spine than some of Baumbach’s other films, but he hasn’t lost his sense of humor. He’s just pushed most of it to the characters surrounding Charlie and Nicole, like Nicole’s fussy mother (Julie Hagerty) or the set of Nicole’s weird prestige sci-fi show, as a way for Marriage Story from getting too bogged down in heavy emotion. Life does go on, after all.
And the funny parts can be as cutting as the serious ones. “The system rewards bad behavior,” chirps Nicole’s lawyer (Laura Dern) about a particularly aggressive maneuver. She’s trying to reassure Nicole that they’re doing the right thing, but she’s unable to completely conceal the note of glee in her voice. For Nicole and Charlie, this is one of the worst ordeals of their lives, but for Nora (and for Charlie’s lawyers, played by Alan Alda and Ray Liotta) it’s just another day on the job.
Throughout, Baumbach treats the main characters with care and compassion, acknowledging the fear, frustration, and love behind them. Your mileage may vary on how successfully you think he’s balanced the story between Nicole and Charlie (personally, I think it’s weighted ever so slightly in one direction), but he seems scrupulous in trying to hear out both sides, without leaning too far toward either perspective.
Johansson is excellent as Nicole. The character may tend toward wishy-washiness, but there is nothing vague about her performance. Driver is even better as Charlie, using his physicality to convey his character’s enormous will and ambition. Seeing him tower under a doorframe, you can see how a person might be drawn to his solidity, and then come to feel flattened by it. But they are best of all together, each calibrating their energy to the other’s presence.
“I can’t believe I have to know you forever,” Nicole rages at Charlie during a particularly contentious exchange — but that, it turns out, is the point of Marriage Story. This isn’t a narrative about the ups and downs of a romantic relationship, but nor is it really about the severance of one. Rather, it’s about the lifelong bond that Charlie and Nicole will always share through Henry, and the formation of an entirely new dynamic between them, atop the ruins of the old one. It’ll take a lot of tears, and a few laughs, to get there. But Baumbach and his cast make it well worth the journey.