There are major life events all of us are familiar with, whether or not we’ve experienced them for ourselves. A wedding or the birth of a child. The death of a loved one or buying a house. Earning an advanced degree or getting divorced. They are mile markers along our journey in life, and because of their sheer scope, they’re often reduced in conversation to just their end result. “I bought a house” or “I had a baby.”
Far less discussed are the details, the moment-to-moment planning, turmoil, effort and drama that must inevitably occur in order to get from one side of the thing to the other. Paperwork must be signed, doctor visits must be scheduled, tests must be passed—the details must be attended to, details that may be exciting and full of promise or the opposite, dreaded and quite painful.
Filmmaker Noah Baumbach seeks the humanity in those details in Marriage Story, a film that doesn’t just tell us about a divorce that’s already happened but walks us through it, step by painful step. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as Charlie and Nicole, a couple who’ve called it quits and now must do the actual work—legal, emotional and otherwise—to make it official. A New York-based family (they have one son, Henry, played by Azhy Robertson), he’s a sought-after theater director who’s moving his latest production to Broadway and she’s his muse, a successful actress who’s starred in most of his shows but has been offered a television pilot shooting in Los Angeles, her hometown. This bi-coastal development throws a wrench in an already messy process, even as it brings Nicole closer to family.
Though we only get glimpses of Charlie and Nicole in the prime of their relationship, the love they have for each other remains evident, if strained, even as their relationship falls apart. And this is key to Baumbach’s story, as he navigates their dissolution while maintaining a thread of goodwill between the two. Even in the worst of it, as in during the film’s one big blow-up fight between them, neither relishes the pain the other suffers in these circumstances; instead, it’s confusion, exasperation, defeat and grief that’s written all over their faces. Both Driver and Johansson deliver confident performances, though his is far more vulnerable and nuanced than hers; it’s entirely possible that what reads as a flat affect from her is actually a quite thoughtful defense mechanism on her character’s part. But that’s a generous take. In fact, supporting performances from Laura Dern (as the chic, fast-talking divorce lawyer Nicole hires in LA) and Alan Alda (as her well-meaning and still quite sharp counterpart working on Charlie’s behalf) center some of the film’s most compelling scenes.
As painful as it is (anyone who’s gone through a bad break-up, let alone a divorce, will empathize), Marriage Story is unexpectedly funny, finding levity in the absurdity of these things, from how exactly the legal papers are supposed to be served to the inherent awkwardness of having a representative from the state observe your parenting for a day. Baumbach leans into his penchant for dialogue-driven character development; the word count here is probably on par with one of Woody Allen’s relationship comedies and at times, the film is in danger of losing sight of the task at hand, the exploration of the end of an era. Even the score, a sometimes playful, lighthearted offering characteristic of composer Randy Newman (perhaps best known for his music for Disney films like the Toy Story franchise), quite literally sets a tone that keeps the film from falling too far off a broken-hearted cliff.
When Nicole first meets with Nora (Dern), she’s still processing the reality of the impending divorce, the act of hiring a lawyer making it all too real. Nora asks her how she’s doing, and Nicole just breaks down in tears in response (and goes on to deliver a monologue that sheds some light into how we got to here). Nora lets her guard down momentarily to cozy up next to Nicole and assure her, in a moment of compassion and understanding, that what they’re about to embark on is, in fact, an act of hope. It’s a moment that passes quickly but resonates for the rest of the film and long after it ends.
As Nicole, Charlie, Henry, their families, friends and colleagues are all mired in the ripple effects of these life-changing circumstances, there’s a glimmer of hope, a desire for things to get better on the other side of all of this, that keeps their collective head above water. Anger, frustration, guilt and more are certainly all present, and sometimes in spades. But in his choice to take us through the storm (versus rolling the credits before it even begins or picking up after it’s passed), Baumbach both acknowledges the mess of it all and reminds us that we’re strong enough to survive it.
Marriage Story is opens today at Music Box Theater on 35mm.
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