Marriage Story Shows the Painful Asymmetry of a Breakup
In Noah Baumbach’s heartfelt divorce film, a couple’s conflicts stem from their inability to understand each other.
Marriage Story begins with an accounting: two lists, sweet and generous ones, in which a husband and wife describe all the things they love about each other. Both monologues are delivered with such tenderness by Charlie (played by Adam Driver) and Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) that it’s hard not to be enchanted by their partnership from the get-go—which is exactly what the writer and director Noah Baumbach wants. After all, this is a story about a divorce, one where it’s not easy to pick a side, and where there’s a palpable sense of loss for the Barbers. Theirs was a union that made total sense until it didn’t anymore.
In his 25 years as a director, Baumbach has made spiky, small-scale comedies about every miserable stage of adulthood. Kicking and Screaming (1995) remains a definitive text on not knowing what to do with yourself after graduating from college, and Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015) focused on that strange blend of energy and listlessness that comes with being a 20-something still searching for purpose. The underrated comedy While We’re Young (2014) was about a married couple struggling to let go of their fading youth. The Squid and the Whale (2005) was an acerbically funny divorce film told from the perspective of the children caught in the turmoil. Marriage Story is another comedy, but it’s less caustic than most of Baumbach’s other scripts. It’s sad and sometimes angry, with a heartfelt view of a relationship’s dynamics that some of the director’s prior works lacked.
The movie is an epic told on the tiniest stage, magnifying the minute and irrelevant-seeming details that can either strengthen a partnership or end it. Though the film has a balanced storytelling structure, mostly devoting its first half to Nicole and its second to Charlie, Baumbach develops his characters differently. Marriage Story begins as the Barbers are initiating divorce proceedings (their lists were the product of couples’ mediation), and Nicole is already quite clear-eyed about the rot in their relationship. For Charlie, it takes the entire movie to get anywhere near that level of emotional awareness. In charting the path of a breakup, Baumbach is intent on depicting its asymmetry. Nicole and Charlie’s problems arise not just from conflicts in their careers and personal outlooks, but also from their inability to understand each other’s state of mind.
The film’s leads are two major movie stars, and there’s a cleverness to their casting. Driver has frequently collaborated with Baumbach and has emerged as an acting powerhouse in recent films such as Paterson, BlacKkKlansman, and Silence. In Marriage Story, Driver is his usual broad-shouldered, singularly handsome self, playing an acclaimed New York City theater director who deflects praise with practiced awkwardness. But as Charlie’s divorce evolves into a protracted negotiation of his future relationship with his 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), Driver makes himself seem small and vulnerable, hunching his shoulders and moving with the hesitance of a confused child.
Johansson’s role is closer to her reality. Nicole is an actor who made her name as a Hollywood starlet, then moved to Brooklyn and spent years tied to Charlie’s theater company. In the film, she’s working on a big-budget TV show, struggling to find her footing in her new life and energized by the challenge. As Nicole returns to L.A., changes her personal style, and eases back into a social world she long ago abandoned, Johansson imbues her character with verve and uncertain excitement. Both halves of Marriage Story involve laughter and tears, but Baumbach concentrates on making each character feel distinct rather than syncing up their plot arcs.
Echoing 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer, the canonical classic in the divorce genre, Marriage Story derives much of its drama from the byzantine details of the legal process. Even though Charlie and Nicole pledge not to drag out their breakup by bringing lawyers into it, reality intervenes, and both hire people who recommend the most mercenary courses of action. The introduction of Laura Dern as Nicole’s attorney, Nora Fanshaw, is one of the film’s high points. In a stunning monologue by Johansson, Nicole pours her heart out to a near-stranger and feels empowered by Nora’s empathy and tactical advice. Charlie visits two very different counselors, the gentle Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) and the cold-blooded Jay (Ray Liotta), neither of whom has any compassion for Nicole—if only because their job won’t allow it.
Baumbach navigates the cruel arguments, the flashes of sympathy, and the legalese of divorce with realism and deft humor. Late in Marriage Story, during a home visit from a social worker meant to establish his worthiness as a father, Charlie manages—through a farcical series of events—to slash himself with a knife. Trying to maintain a facade of complete calm, Charlie grasps at his own bleeding body with delirious casualness, pretending to ignore a wound that everyone can see. The metaphor is obvious yet powerful in its simplicity. Marriage Story is a drama not only about the healing that has to come after a great injury, but also about the injury itself.