Noah Baumbach is one of our great documenters of the human experience. Prying into the fragility of relationships, he cracks them open and scoops out their emotional core, laying bare the nature of how we relate. In Marriage Story, two of our best working actors give proof-positive performances of their notoriety, in one of cinema’s great divorce stories. Naturally, we would never want a relationship movie where every aspect goes according to plan. The relationship movie must be about the incline and the decline, following the arc all the way up or down. Marriage Story’s handling suggests knowing, heartbreaking maturity, it could only be made by someone who has felt broken by the process themselves.
It is a story of both sides. We sit with Charlie (an exceptionally focused and masterful Adam Driver) and Nicole (a peak Scarlett Johansson) as they deal with the fallout that comes with divorce. The film follows the tragically life-altering process. What they both want is shared custody of their son. With great apparent pain, Baumbach navigates the intricacies of the frustrating court experience, especially what it means for men like Charlie.
What matters about Marriage Story is that nothing is left on the table. Driver and Johannsson seemingly live in their roles. They perform with knowing discomfort of their situation. Driver, significantly, proves himself as the highest caliber of actor – something we have always known to be true and now we have definitive proof. He is the real deal and primed to be as great as any talent of his generation. We have always known about Johannsson too but rarely seen her work so effectively with any co-star. Their marriage is not just believable but comes off the page of the perfectly tuned script; clearly, every aspect has been thought over and internalized. The way they handle the grief of their failed relationship is chilling and profound. There have not been any better recent pairings, in anything like a relationship movie. Baumbach finds exactly what is interesting about his actors and exploits it to the utmost degree.
Marriage Story begins with heartache. The couple read everything they love about one another. They’ve created lists that at once define their experience of the other person, but moreover, elaborately paint a vivid picture of who they are in a relationship. Their wants, needs, the sadness of everything that is about to be lost, and it’s felt. It cuts damn deep, and does not put band-aids over the scars. For anyone struggling with similar circumstances, it plays like an extended must-attend therapy appointment. It is medicine for the broken-hearted. Whether or not we can relate, however, is arbitrary to the ultimate goal and purpose: that it properly represents the human experience through deeply felt cinematic prose.
Their relationship with son Henry (Azhy Robertson) provides the moral heart to the story. Without him, they might amicably separate. Given a hard role, he is not always up to the same intensity, and – as little as we ever want to write this – falls into the common pitfalls of the child actor problem. The material requires such sincerity and lived-in experience it’s unfair that he would match the feeling and yet does not prove especially worth fighting over. Whatever his Dad does, it is not enough. When he designs matching James Whale-inspired Universal Horror costumes, his son wants no part in the Halloween charades (Driver, however, makes a really fantastic Invisible Man in a clever sequence). It’s a hard problem for the movie, that fails its emotional center, as neither actor believably connects with their son, who is the impetus for all this.
There is greater range provided by other supporting actors. A game Laura Dern plays Nicole’s lawyer, sparking charisma and fun energy in her exploitation of the system. Meanwhile, Charlie must become more aggressive. His first lawyer, a very funny and sensitive Alan Alda has been put through the ringer of this very system where Dern thrives. Charlie must consult a more vicious partner in an all-or-nothing lawyer played by a great Ray Liotta. The courtroom antics are darkly comic. The lawyers tear into every bad habit of their opposition, creating dishonest caricatures of the fabric of their actual marriage. Perhaps the greatest co-star of all is Randy Newman, who provides a tangible, beautifully torn score, expressing exactly the feeling the film demands.
Noah Baumbach is working comfortably in the Netflix system. With two movies down, it seems to be a fitting home for the stories he most wants to tell. These mid-budget dramas exploring the interior lives of their characters present a great alternative to what is at the theaters. These are stories we would most like to engage from the comfort of our couches: deeply personal and burning stories of love lost. Marriage Story capably captures the difficulty of divorce. Alan Alda’s character says it best: “divorce is like death without a body.”