The story kicks off with a bittersweet fake-out: Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) take turns recounting all the things they love about each other. Their lists include all the idiosyncratic eccentricities that slowly reveal themselves during the course of a marriage. She leaves cabinet doors open; he shuts them behind her. He brings balance to her moodiness. They enjoy complimentary things about parenting their young son (Azhy Robertson). It seems like we’re hearing the resumé of two people destined to grow old together. Turns out, these essays come at the behest of a mediator. Nicole and Charlie are in the midst of a divorce.
We soon learn that this uncoupling has been years in the making. A few years ago, Nicole was a burgeoning movie star, an ascent she abandoned upon meeting Charlie. A theater director, Charlie quickly makes a name for himself on the Broadway scene. Nicole dedicates herself to acting in his plays and raising their son, but she slowly realizes that her own dreams are being marginalized by his egocentric ambitions. This growing communication gap frays their marriage, ultimately splitting it at the seams.
The couple tries to keep things amicable, but it isn’t easy. Their contempt for each other is only eclipsed by an aching love and mutual respect. Emotions boil at every meeting, like a hissing teapot. Nicole hires Nora (Laura Dern), a ferocious, brilliant attorney. Charlie opts for Bert (Alan Alda), who turns out to be too folksy and humane for his own good. Bert soon gets replaced by Jay (Ray Liotta), a pit bull with the proper fangs. Accusations fly, tempers flare, and the Cold War between Charlie and Nicole threatens to go nuclear.
Along this emotional thicket, Baumbach does a great job maintaining a sense of realism. It’s so refreshing to see intelligent, capable characters in a movie fumble about, just like people in real life. Nicole and Charlie shout things they don’t mean, do things without understanding why, and grapple with emotions they can barely process. We see them as actual human beings. Their tragedy feels tangible. By the end of Marriage Story, your heart will break for both of them.
Despite Baumbach’s unforced mastery, this film remains an acting showcase. Johansson and Driver aren’t just good, they’re incandescent. I mean this in the best way: Their scenes together feel ragged, unrehearsed, and unhinged. An extended argument between the couple plays like an unbroken take, one that had to have been exhausting for both actors. It’s a powerhouse, and it could very well net each of them an Academy Award. Dern and Liotta mainly exist to trade jabs like cage fighters, but they both excel at it.
Marriage Story made me think of Annie Hall, wherein Woody Allen offers a glum postmortem analysis of his relationship with the title character. He notes that a shark has to keep moving forward, or it will die: “What we have here is a dead shark.” For Charlie and Nicole, the death of their love feels like a gradual deceleration. Things cool off until they turn cold. An even blend of wry and wrenching, this is great film that examines what happens after the story of a marriage ends.
137 min. R.
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