Noah Baumbach’s tale of modern marriage decay begins with an affecting montage as Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) describe, in beautiful and idiosyncratic detail, the things that make them great partners, parents and the deepest of intimates. It’s only at its conclusion that you realise these statements have been prepared for the first mediation in a drawn-out divorce, a final look at the last threads of a love that has bound them together and has now unravelled completely.
“Marriage Story” is the story of Broadway power couple Charlie and Nicole Barber, a creator and muse on the precipice of ascension to the mainstream but also a family with two individuals at a turning point. An unsatisfied Nicole initiates time apart, takes their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) to Los Angeles from New York, kicking off events that lead to the messy unravelling of their snapshot of family perfection in a cruel yet profoundly human way.
Baumbach’s early works feature bodies in spaces; composed with the character’s reverberating aura in mind. In the case of “Frances Ha” and especially “Marriage Story,” you feel Driver and Johansson yearning to break free. Suitably for a couple working in the theater, the battlegrounds in mediation are drab and confined apartments, boardrooms, courtrooms, and all are set like theatre stages and dressed for the emotional trajectory of their individual scenes.
You watch these bodies test those boundaries – figuratively flexing to breath as the noose of the matter tightens with every negotiation. Randy Newman’s score, no matter what’s unfolding at any given moment, is seasoned with an inherent warmth and absurdist whimsy. It’s like something you’d imagine on a 1920s silent film, enlivening the monochrome.
“Marriage Story” has such an enrapturing delivery that it had me swept up and taking sides with Driver’s Charlie. As a father of two little ones in a happy marriage, watching Nicole instigate the events that ultimately ensnare the couple in the vampiric divorce lawyer cottage industry caused me to clench my jaw. Such is the power of Scarlett Johansson’s performance that despite the visceral quality of the tension that Baumbach whisks into being, you feel her pursuit for identity deeply. It’s certainly refreshing to see her acting like a human being rather than a superhero by association.
Adam Driver is an absolute phenomenon in “Marriage Story”. What continues to impress in his growing body of work is the way that he’s able to impart so much of the character’s inner workings in gesture. The former Marine has a posture and physique that the internet (you know who you are) has called “beefcake.” Yet Charlie’s sleek creative is often attempting to be swallowed by a dark chair, a diner booth or a rental car seat.
In the pinnacle encounter between Charlie and Nicole, Baumbach sets the scene and allows the characters and emotions to reverberate off the walls of Charlie’s barren, non-descript Los Angeles apartment. Baumbach and cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s camera in this sequence typify the spatial awareness and intimacy of the audience’s voyeuristic gaze. We’re the orbital front row seat for every agonising minute. If that scene were a short film alone, it would be profoundly worthwhile viewing.
Laura Dern is delectable as Nora Fanshaw, an L.A. divorce attorney that can take the pitter-patter of amicable separation and inflame it into a tsunami of agonising irreconcilable differences. She’s got impeccable timing and oozes a patronising manner, yet you find yourself sitting up straighter and uncontrollably smiling whenever she appears. While Charlie (Driver) assumes that there’s a cordial route to legally separate he enlists the titan Alan Alda as sweet older Bert Spitz. This old champion’s defeatist but pragmatic attitude is a frayed yarn to be toyed with by the feline Nora (Dern).
Charlie (Driver) then fights fire with fire and selects Ray Liotta’s Jay Marotta – a cynical, testosterone-fuelled, savvy bulldog. This match-up is a joyous fracas that features escalating and increasingly uncomfortable banter that stings like an unstoppable peppering jab of a prizefighter. Warmth, composure, compassion for Dern; toughness, relatable, ‘matter of fact’ for Liotta – Baumbach knows just how to pervert their power so that you are both mesmerised by them and hate them.
The film edges towards its climax with duelling Steven Sondheim song performances from “Company.” Nicole (Johansson), and her sister Cassie (Merritt Weaver, who is excellent) and mother Sanda (a hilariously hypocritical Julie Hagerty) do a rendition of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” Charlie (Driver) meanwhile gets an ad-libbed “Being Alive” which is an even more significant song selection.
When you compare the two; the tragedy is the echo and importance of Sondheim to their identity as a couple. For Nicole, it’s an essential begrudging service for her family’s support towards self-actualisation. She’s done with the stage, with a world where Charlie would interrupt friendly commiserations to burst into song. For Charlie, his version is a denial. He inclines to take the reins of the song and seems to find the frequency of realisation that to be alive, is possible without Nicole. Driver’s rendition and its turbulent emotional trajectory are a ride I could go on again and again.
“Marriage Story” lingers long and scratches synapses that nudge you back towards a rewatch, but I don’t know if I’m ready. My kids and wife power me like Superman is powered by our yellow sun, but when you realise the real compromises that you make for one another as a couple can be weaponised in a legal ‘thunderdome’ – even simple words thanking your partner for everything they do to make you a better half – it makes you think twice. The company of lawyers is a misery I neither want to experience or imagine.