Marriage Story review – divorce drama makes you glad to be alive

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are electric as a feuding couple in the latest film from Noah Baumbach

Noah Baumbach’s new film might be called Marriage Story, but this is definitely a story of divorce. As the writer-director of comedy-dramas like The Squid and the Whale and The Meyerowitz Stories, two films also primarily concerned with the dissolution of family units, he has sifted through the experience of his own divorce with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (how she feels about all this remains a mystery), along with anecdotes from friends and loved ones, to create a portrait of a relationship in the midst of its death rattle. It might be his best film yet.

Charlie (Adam Driver, never better) is a successful New York-based theatre director who works alongside his wife, an actress named Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, magnetic). The film begins with arguably its greatest – or at least its most telling – scene: a beautiful montage in which Charlie, then Nicole, recount in kindly voice-overs the reasons why they love each other. It’s an elegant but slyly clever way to start a film about divorce because the observations are so specific and personal. How, you wonder, could these two, who seem to appreciate one another on such a microscopic level, be considering divorce? Then, suddenly, we’re in a marriage mediator’s office, and we realise that this reading of positive traits is merely an exercise – one we get to hear, but Charlie and Nicole never do (perhaps, if they had, they wouldn’t be splitting up).

Marriage Story makes the simple case that these two might not have been suited for each another in the first place. Nicole – once the more successful of the two – feels eclipsed by Charlie’s achievements, and longs to return to the west coast, to Los Angeles, to be closer to her family and carve out a career on her own terms. This notion – this idea of self-preservation – acts as the tipping point in which their relationship begins to crumble. Yet brilliantly, unexpectedly, Baumbach doesn’t treat Marriage Story as a will-they-won’t-they work it all out before it’s too late-type romantic comedy. We are never made to consider that Charlie and Nicole will reconcile as a couple. As such, their separation – at first amicable; later the very opposite – becomes hinged on their young son, not unlike in 70s classic Kramer vs. Kramer, in which their own feelings for one other must be cyphered through the act of trying to retain custody of a child.

What should be a film about two people learning to live without each other, then, instead divulges into a battle over whether they are suitable parents, an issue that never existed in the first place, set in motion when Nicole hires ruthless lawyer Nora (Laura Dern). Therein lies the heart of Baumbuch’s film: the process of divorce in itself, depicted here as just about the ugliest thing that can happen between two people who once loved each other, who still love each other – especially when a child is involved. It’s here that small, meaningless moments are collected up like ammunition by lawyers looking to score points in court. In this arena, a glass of wine (or a bottle) becomes a sign of alcoholism. You smoke the occasional joint? You must be addicted to drugs. You were late picking up your son, one time, due to a traffic jam? You’re an unreliable parent. We watch in horror because we know these versions of Charlie and Nicole are not the Charlie and Nicole we know. They are not even the versions of Charlie and Nicole that they know of each other.

Much like his idols Woody Allen and Éric Rohmer, Baumbach has always been a dab hand at blending comedy and drama, and Marriage Story is always funny and heartbreaking, often at the same time. Wisely, the film drops much of the self-conscious irony and arthouse ambition of the filmmaker’s previous works to instead become something that feels accessible but not compromised. Anyone will be able to relate to Marriage Story, whether they’ve been through these experiences or not, because it is a film about how we come together and move away from each over, and what is more universal than that? It’s a bid that’s further emphasised by Randy Newman’s tender, emotional score, the kind designed to make you weep uncontrollably – and it will succeed.

The film, structurally messy (but isn’t divorce messy?), occasionally feels like one that’s made from miniature plays, in which characters talk at each other or – later – have other characters talk for them, often to the determent of their own thoughts and feelings. There are moments that can only have been taken from real life, like when Charlie is visited by an unreadable social worker, or the constant references to the amount of “space” there is in Los Angeles. It builds to a confrontation that has been brewing for the length of the film, in which Charlie and Nicole – sick of dealing with proxies – come together to talk in the absence of their lawyers. The scene that follows is evocative of a similarly unforgettable sequence in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s attempt to enjoy a hotel room in spite of their underlying relationship issues also turned into a showdown of harsh truths, built-up resentments, saying things that weren’t meant, and a potential divorce in its own right.

And yet from his experiences – from so many people’s experiences – Baumbach has gifted us with not a bleak and miserable anti-marriage tirade but a warm and complex drama about simply being alive – about embracing life in all its shades. When Charlie, visiting a New York piano bar with friends, suddenly takes to the stage in order to sing an emotionally-charged version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive,” we understand he has opted to take this in his stride. That he believes his experiences to be part of something bigger and more formative. Marriage Story might be a film about the end of something, but – as glimpsed in a small gesture during the film’s moving final scene – it is also about the beginning of something else.

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