Charlie and Nicole are the married couple on the train. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t notice though. Despite the pair being the toast of Off-Off-Broadway, with him the prestigious director of an underfunded theater company and her its brightest star, when they come back from a party, they’re not on the same page—they’re not even on the same subway bench. Nicole sits quietly on the 3 train’s empty pew, and Charlie stands across the aisle, despondent. They are still together, and given their marriage story includes the birth of a loved son, they always will be, in a way. But they’re headed in different directions even when they’re on the same track.
This is one of the many provocative images percolating in Noah Baumbach’s sweet and unexpectedly warm film about the end of a marriage, but not entirely the love it was built upon. Forty years after Robert Benton essayed the struggles of divorce with the solemnity of a war crime in Kramer vs. Kramer, Baumbach crafts a more complex, intimate, and funnier film that makes the pain of truly irreconcilable differences all the bitterer. It is Baumbach’s most mature effort to date, and one that offers career-defining turns for its two leads, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.
Fittingly having just debuted at the New York Film Festival, Marriage Story is defined by its NYC identity. In fact, it’s that insistent outer borough charm which proves the catalyst for a divorce that begins amicably and ends with lawyers gleeful about a “street fight” in court. For while Nicole (Johansson) admires that Charlie (Driver) is the transplant who is more New Yorker than any narive, she’s never really felt rooted there. Ten years after she moved to the city and gave up a budding film career to be with Charlie, she’s taken a television pilot back in Los Angeles, which also just happens to be where her mother and sister are… and where she and Charlie were married, as well as where their son was born.
That distinction of marriage licenses and son Henry’s (Azhy Robertson) birth certificate turns out to be titanic as far as the legal system is concerned. Charlie might be a great father, but he is also greatly involved in his own work and self-image as an emerging Broadway wunderkind, and he can no more imagine living in the sunny soullessness of LA than he can in a world where Henry isn’t nearby. But he might have to choose as, for the first time in years, Nicole is actually pursuing what she wants, especially after taking a meeting with high-powered SoCal attorney Nora (Laura Dern).
As one of the most idiosyncratic and dry screenwriting voices of his generation, Baumbach has infused his many scripts with the pain of growing up. Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha struggles in hipster Brooklyn like a millennial Annie Hall, and Gerwig’s very different screwball protagonist in Mistress America is still unsure how friends could ever settle down in the Connecticut suburbs. But with his two most recent efforts between The Meyerowitz Stories and Marriage Story, Baumbach has focused on less easily solvable problems.
In tackling divorce, the director is as insistent as his characters that he doesn’t want to turn this into a battle of wills or venomous accusations, but by nature of what Charlie and Nicole are going through, the hurt feelings and recriminations are inevitable. Beginning the movie on sweet, parallel notes of praise each party wrote about the other during an arbitration session, the film glides through the good times via montage—and then never lets those brief remembrances go. It is perhaps those fleeting feelings that allows Charlie, who is clearly built on Baumbach’s own knowing experiences with a bicoastal divorce, to be so delusional to think that divorce will neither affect his directing work or his relationship with his son.
Still, Marriage Story has few illusions. While the picture favors Charlie’s vantage on the whole while he struggles mightily to fly between California and New York to see his son—including by being forced to rent an apartment in Los Angeles in order to legally argue Henry should live in New York—it’s also acutely aware of his own selfish hypocrisies. There is something perfect about the metaphor of the husband as a director and the wife as the most prized member of his ensemble. She might be his favorite actress, but at the end of the day she is a pawn for his vision, and one increasingly seen by all those around them as an accessory to his career’s ascension.
Johansson, in the best work of her career, carries an indignation that is still too formless to identify as resentment. Yet it forms an invisible chain around her neck. In her first meeting with Dern, love turns to frustration and then exasperation as she relives a decade in a moment. It’s about a five-minute soliloquy that encapsulates years.
And the lawyer she tells this too also underlines Baumbach’s unmistakably droll sensibility. While things become evermore heated as Nicole and Charlie head toward court, and Henry begins forgetting that he also lives with his father, the movie maintains a gallows sensibility. It manifests in moments like Dern’s preternaturally ingratiating attorney taking off her shoes while listening to a sob story, or the way she can be all hugs and kisses with Ray Liotta as the slimiest lawyer in LA. But it can also be found in the amusing way that Nicole and her mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty) bicker about whether Sandra will still be friends with Charlie. “You might be getting divorced, but Charlie and I have a special relationship that’ll last forever!”
Reminiscent of the more sophisticated comedies of the ‘70s, there is a pervasive melancholy throughout Marriage Story that makes the laughs more ludicrous and the subsequent reality unbearable. Through it all Johansson and Driver offer peerless work. One special highlight is near the end of the film where Charlie, ever the showman, can finally find the words to express his anguish by singing (in full) a musical number by Stephen Sondheim. It’s a devastating crescendo of bottled up emotion. Finally, the workaholic artist who cannot find the words to direct his own life bares it all. It is a true high-note after the preceding two hours, which featured its own chorus of tears and smiles, and an acceptance that even after the final curtain. the feelings left behind will always linger. Including the love story that remains.
Marriage Story debuted on Oct. 4 at NYFF. This review was first published on Oct. 10.