Director: Noah Baumbach
Stars: Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Scarlett Johansson
Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) were a happily married couple living in New York, until they weren’t.
Noah Baumbach’s latest film – a mix of emotionally wrought drama and excruciating farce that plays out like a career summation – unpicks a marriage as it collapses. The title might be Marriage Story, but its a divorce movie, one that particularly outlines how grotesque a business it is. Charlie is a renowned avant garde theatre director in Brooklyn; Nicole has been his muse for a decade. They have a sensitive son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), together. But they’ve fallen out of love, and previously unimagined resentments bubble to the surface when Nicole takes Henry out to LA to film a TV pilot… and hires divorce lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern).
Baumbach highlights what an agonising exercise this is going to be by opening with both characters’ greatest traits… as seen in each other; part of a divorce mediation exercise that dissolves into a squabble. The best is over. We only really hear about the good times. Still, we feel the history.
When Nicole unburdens herself to Nora, we get a real sense of a few things. How pent up she has been; how gamely a puffy-eyed Johansson is going for her Academy Award nomination without screaming that she wants it; and how Baumbach is maturing into one of the American greats. The long take… the blocking of it… how it evolves. He’s inherited Woody Allen’s dubious throne as the master of New Yorker neuroses and Marriage Story feels like a concerted effort to take what he’s achieved already to some ethereal ‘next level’.
Following Nicole’s move to LA, the film pivots more commonly to Charlie’s bewildered perspective. He’d assumed that they’d settle their irrevocable differences amicably, The lawyers muddy those waters. Despite Nicole’s insistence, Nora can’t help but see it as a competition, and she’s good at what she does. Charlie finds himself on the back foot, hemorrhaging money and losing his grip on, well, anything.
Baumbach elicits an emotional root out of Driver that’s rarely been exposed to the light before. His Charlie may be pompous and myopic, but he’s also a walking open wound – something that becomes startlingly literal in one of the film’s significant set pieces; a sequence both hysterical and horrifying. Good as Johansson is; this is Driver’s film.
The supporting cast crackles with talent. Alan Alda and Ray Liotta bring polarising energies as Charlie’s respective lawyers. Dern is basically doing Renata Klein if we ever actually saw her at work. And then there’s even the little business getting done by the likes of Julie Hagerty and Wallace Shawn – two pieces of casting as inspired as each other.
Marriage Story is frequently funny, but its more commonly a low-key tragedy, itemising how two people can teach themselves to loathe one another. It’s about the bittersweet agonies of knowing someone too well. An unintentional battle of wills emerges. Charlie and Nicole sometimes struggle to remind themselves that they’re not ‘these people’, and that the process – the institution of divorce – is built around a cathedral of contradictions, red tape and necessities that pummel the love out of them.
Baumbach’s range has never been so diverse. He switches from emotional openness to the kind of farce he showed such a flare for with Mistress America (sorely underseen). This is probably his best picture since that one, though it does feel large. It is mostly set in LA and many characters comment on the amount of space. This sense of openness extends to the picture itself, which tends to feel airy and not altogether succinct. But said roominess also feels deliberate, accentuating the feel of a long, unreal war happening in a space where unity once existed (whether real or imaginary).
The walls of Charlie’s hastily-bought LA apartment reflect this, also. It looks as though he lives in a hotel, so anonymous are his walls. This blankness is befitting of the emotional dislocation Baumbach is examining, something closely approximating grief. Those windows in our lives when the status quo gets obliterated and we’re left with outstretched arms, desperately trying to understand what ‘normal’ is anymore.