Divorce is a nasty business. But, in Noah Baumbach’s tremendous new drama Marriage Story, it’s also something far more insidious. His thesis is that divorce is an industry, designed to squeeze as many pennies as possible out of the breakdown of a family, exploiting suffering to make a fast buck from the rubble of a marriage. Baumbach turns his crosshairs on the three people caught within the maelstrom of this industrial complex, and it’s a nuanced nightmare of emotional carnage.
The film opens with a tender diptych of monologues, as Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) separately explain the things they love about each other. It’s a wry, smartly observed celebration of the little things, taking just five minutes or so of screen time to induce an audience to fall deeply in love with the film’s two protagonists. We then learn, devastatingly, that these monologues are a wheeze conceived by a counsellor, helping to mediate the couple’s divorce. Baumbach sets out his potent premise with compelling, stark simplicity.
It soon becomes clear that there are deep problems in this marriage. Charlie is a theatre director, devoted to New York City, while Nicole is an actress, who met her husband after shooting to fame as the breakout performer in a popular teen movie. She moved from LA to New York to be with him and has since worked in many of his acclaimed plays. Repeated discussions about making the move back to California have fallen on deaf ears and now Nicole has made the journey alone, with their son Henry (Azhy Robertson).
The dispute here is simple, but the movie is constructed in order that the audience’s sympathies constantly shift. Both of these people are likeable, right up until they’re not. As the layers of artifice and performance are peeled away from their relationship, deep fault lines are revealed, with both halves of the couple in the wrong and a young boy caught up in the centre of it all. The very act of divorce seems to curdle their personalities, illuminating everything that’s petty and snide, while pushing their warmth into the dark.
Much of this is driven by legal shark Nora (Laura Dern), whom Nicole is pushed into hiring. She’s an uber-glamorous LA attorney who orders kale salad – obviously – and apologises for looking like trash, even though she looks ready to walk a red carpet. Dern’s malevolently pleasant performance is a barnstormer of sleazy charm, contrasted by the bumbling niceness of Charlie’s initial attorney (Alan Alda) and the bulldog brutality of his eventual representative, played by a typically bruising Ray Liotta. Each of these illustrates the dark nightmare of the divorce system. Charlie can’t convince the courts this is a “New York family” if he gets a house in California, but he also looks like he doesn’t care about his kid if he doesn’t have an LA property.
But this movie belongs to Driver and Johansson, each performing at the peak of their powers. They initially pledge to achieve their split without legal intervention, but the moment lawyers become involved, their voices are robbed from them as the divorce turns into a battle of financial one-upmanship and emotional manipulation. Driver is tremendous as a man who is constantly told he’s a genius, while Johansson excels as a talented, driven woman emerging from the shadow of the man who, perhaps unwittingly, held her back for years.
When the two of them are on screen together, it’s humanity that shines through, whether in a raucous argument that recalls the best moments of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight or in a courtroom scene that sees both of them remain tellingly silent. Baumbach’s script elegantly contrasts the two performers, with numerous scenes that mirror their twin existences as separate people. When each of them covers a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Company in the third act, it tells you everything you need to know. They’re in love until they’re not, flexible until they’re not and human until they’re not at all.
Aside from the undeniable emotional power of Marriage Story, it’s stunning how funny the movie is. At times, the film plays out like an exquisite set piece of observational comedy, while other moments are simply terrifically absurd. One sequence sees Charlie visited by a court-appointed observer to see how he parents his son. The observer, played brilliantly by Mary Hollis Inboden, is a spaced-out oddball who’s about as far from Supernanny as it’s possible to be. This doesn’t stop Charlie faffing and fumbling, though, culminating in a genuinely shocking pay-off that has stayed with me ever since the credits rolled.
Every frame of the film is meticulously crafted, with DOP Robbie Ryan turning Charlie’s LA environment into a bare-bones prison as a contrast to the warm family home to which Nicole returns. Randy Newman’s score too is unobtrusive, but adds impressive notes to the emotional landscape. This is a low-key masterpiece from Baumbach, who has constructed one of the films of the year from the chaotic fragments of a broken marriage. With two performers firing on all cylinders and a script packed with wit and intelligence, this is something very special indeed.
Dir: Noah Baumbach
Scr: Noah Baumbach
Prd: Noah Baumbach, David Heyman
DOP: Robbie Ryan
Music: Randy Newman
Run time: 137 mins
Marriage Story is out in selected UK cinemas from 15th November and is available on Netflix from 6th December.