Marriage Story begins with Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) reading lists of what they love most about one another. They are sweet and nuanced: both loving parents, he's a successful Broadway director and she's a star actor—in fact, his "favorite actor." It seems a match made in heaven and we are quickly swept up in their idyllic partnership, making it all the more stinging when we learn the lists are part of an assignment given by a mediator to aid in the process of Nicole and Charlie's impending uncoupling. This is writer/director Noah Baumbach's (Francis Ha, Mistress America) intention. He wants it to hurt, and it does.
On the surface, the divorce is one of logistics, a tale of two cities: Nicole moves to Los Angeles to pursue a big role in a TV pilot and to enjoy all that "space" everyone keeps talking about, while Charlie stays in New York to bring his production of Electra to Broadway. Charlie sees her move as only temporary and insists they are a "New York family," while Nicole maintains this move is something she's always wanted—something Charlie failed to take seriously amidst all his self-importance.
His play, it turns out, is an apt allusion (a woman scorned), and although they'd discussed parting amicably and without lawyers, Nicole finds cutthroat, stiletto-wearing divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (portrayed fabulously by Laura Dern) to represent her. During their first meeting Fanshaw asks Nicole for her side of the story. Nicole says, "It's difficult to articulate." And it is, because with no true villain to blame we are left navigating the little things that lead to the demise of their relationship.
Of course, there are problems aplenty, and while it may take Charlie (and us) a moment to play emotional catch-up with Nicole, we eventually come to understand just how insidious these "little things" can be in a relationship. It's difficult to watch as Nora paints Charlie as a sort-of deadbeat dad too consumed with his work to truly care. For Nora, the inadequacy of the father is not just about Charlie, but about all men; "God is the father and God didn't show up," she tells Nicole. "It's fucked up, but that's the way it is"—this could be a tagline for the film. Meanwhile, Charlie seeks his own council, meeting with two lawyers: a pussycat (Alan Alda) and a shark (Ray Liotta).
We may want to pick a side, but Baumbach won't let us off so easily. Nicole and Charlie are so perfectly messy and endearing that we are left feeling like their 8-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson), grasping at his parent's hands while they literally pull him in different directions. This is Driver and Johansson at their best and Baumbach's finest work yet.
Marriage Story is at once Greek tragedy, absurdist comedy and a surrealist dystopian reality. A must-see.
+Meticulous character development
-That part when Scarlett Johansson sings
Directed by Noah Baumbach
With Driver and Johansson
Violet Crown, Netflix, R, 136 min.