There’s a bracing authenticity to Marriage Story, the latest drama from writer/director Noah Baumbach. It’s there in the capturing of the mundane moments of marriage, like handing off that pesky pickle jar to the designated opener of a pairing. It’s the space between a fighting but silent couple as they ride the subway, short yet vast. It’s there in dialogue that tumbles from tender to volcanic as a long-brewing fight ignites. It’s there in the echo of a new apartment, empty, so all the better for making the insults and accusations bounce back at both partners. So, it’s hard to forget how it might echo Baumbach’s own story.
Marriage Story centers on the dissolution of the marriage of a New York director (Adam Driver) and an LA actress (Scarlett Johansson). Knowing that Baumbach went through a similar situation when he and his ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh divorced, it’s hard not to wonder how much of this fictional feature has roots in real life. But Marriage Story is too good to just gawk over. Besides, Baumbach doesn’t use the film to make excuses for himself by painting his possible director/husband proxy as some sort of misunderstood genius. Instead, he carefully balances the perspectives of husband and wife to explore the complicated process of prying a partnership apart.
This approach was hinted at in the pair of teasers titled “What I love about Nicole” and “What I love about Charlie.” Within the film, the voiceover from each is part of letters each character has written to begin the mediation to dissolve their marriage. But where Charlie (Driver) is eager to share what he’s written, even a bit cocky about how well-written it is, Nicole (Johansson) isn’t ready to read hers. Talks break down, and despite their agreement not to bring lawyers into it, Nicole seeks outside help.
A TV pilot takes her from their New York City home, where they’d built a theater company together, back to her hometown of Los Angeles. The film follows her journey as she tries to rediscover who she is outside of her husband’s wife, her director’s leading lady, and her son’s mother. She finds an ally in Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern in divine diva mode), a firecracker divorce attorney and personal guru who urges Nicole to share why she feels her marriage fell apart.
There will be no flashbacks to the way they were. Baumbach keeps things urgent by focusing on not what was but how it feels now. In a blistering monologue that’s earning Johansson understandable Oscar buzz, Nicole explains what it was like to go from Hollywood It Girl to her husband’s muse. She explains the pleasure of seeing him and the company succeed, but the pain of feeling like none of it was really hers. “Here’s a bit of earth that’s yours,” is how she described the TV pilot offer, adding, “Maybe it’s stupid, but at least it’s mine.”
In scenes with her LA-based family, on the set of her CG-heavy TV show, and on dates fumbling but formative, we witness Nicole reclaiming her bit of earth. Then the focus shifts to Charlie, who feels the earth is crumbling beneath his feet. He’s readying his Broadway debut but is distracted from rehearsals by intense calls from Nicole’s attorney. He’s spending his time with his young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) racing around on errands, and he meets attorneys who are high-priced sharks (a ruthless Ray Liotta) and kind-hearted but bumbling (Alan Alda in the most Alan Alda role to ever Alan Alda). We see how Charlie feels blindsided by all of it.
Driver brings his manic charisma to the role, making it easy to understand why Nicole fell for Charlie. After her heartbreaking monologue, it’s not easy to empathize with the self-involved artist who chiefly regarded his wife as an extension of his own desires and needs. Baumbach puts Charlie through the ringer, offering plenty of opportunities for us to thrill in schadenfreude. Driver brings an alert panic to every frame. At first, it’s admittedly fun to watch him flounder as Nicole thrives. But as he sees not only his marriage, but his career, his family, and his home threatened by lawyers who regard his life as a battleground, schadenfreude slips to sympathy. Then comes a scene that is among the most extraordinary of the year.
It involves a dumb joke gone very wrong. At the New York Film Festival press screening, the packed house gasped in unison at its catalyst. Gulped and gagged as an abruptly ghoulish bit of slapstick plays out in a precisely polished living room. Charlie is left alone, grappling with this urgent horror and with just how unprepared he is to be unmoored from his marriage. It’s a scene that feels so spontaneous and dangerous, I wasn’t sure what might come next. In this way, Baumbach keeps a drama that clocks in at 2 hours and 16 minutes from feeling ponderous. Marriage Story is a rush of emotion, character, and bloody brilliant humor that keeps it alive from start to finish.
Above all else, it’s a story of people. There is no hero, no villain. Charlie and Nicole both have flaws, which will at points be twisted to sound worse than they are. Through this journey, Baumbach explores how our humanity can be lost in fights as brutal as divorce. He also seeks to show how love can be reclaimed. The film’s climax is a fight scene that is breathless in its raw emotion, pitting Johansson and Driver against each other like heavyweights in a grudge match. Yet the story pushes through this, to scenes softer and still emotionally electric. Marriage Story is not just about the break up of a marriage; it’s about the healing and harmony that can be fought for after. In the end, this is a love story, and it is absolutely extraordinary.
Marriage Story made its New York Premiere at NYFF. It will hit theaters in limited release on December 6.