“Marriage Story” brings a lot of baggage to the table: It’s a divorce saga about a wealthy showbiz couple that burrows into the emotional turmoil of their split, and the plight of whiny, privileged white people is not exactly in vogue. But the power of “Marriage Story” stems from the way it transcends the simplicity of its premise, with writer-director Noah Baumbach matching the material for his most personal movie with filmmaking ambition to spare, and a pair of devastating performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson that rank as their very best. It starts from a familiar place, then sneaks into transcendence.
The opener packs a wallop. Acclaimed New York playwright Charlie (Driver) and his longtime actress muse Nicole (Johansson) have already decided to part ways, leaving the future custody of their child in doubt. A counselor assigned to mediate the separation asks the pair to jot down each other’s positive attributes, yielding an operatic sequence of dueling voiceovers that careens from Charlie’s affections for Nicole to Nicole’s affections for Charlie before crescendoing in the midst of their current frustrations. It’s an audacious start that epitomizes the contradictory experiences at the center of the movie, a touching evocation of romance with a cynical aftertaste, and Baumbach’s only getting started.
The irony of “Marriage Story” is that the story has more to do with the particulars of the divorce process — the way the intricate legalities unfold in bland meeting rooms and harsh courtroom exchanges at odds with the fragile circumstances. Over the course of 136 absorbing minutes, as the movie navigates Charlie and Nicole’s clashing perspectives, Baumbach doesn’t attempt to reconstruct the path toward divorce so much as the complex psychological turmoil it instigates for his protagonists.
“Marriage Story” starts with Nicole’s perspective, and the split seems like a no-brainer: Living in Los Angeles as she prepares for a new television show, she has drifted apart from Charlie as he prepares to stage a new project in New York. Nicole was once the shining star of Charlie’s New York-based theater company, but has since moved in her own direction, and he remains oblivious to her needs. At the insistence of a colleague, she connects with the high-powered attorney Nora (a mesmerizing Laura Dern, wearing a smile that could kill). Nora’s the sort of no-nonsense Hollywood veteran whose ability to assess Nicole’s situation requires her to oscillate from benevolent therapist to ruthless interrogator. Nicole’s first session is marked by a freewheeling monologue that stretches on for several minutes, as the actress chronicles the evolution of her attraction to Charlie and its eventual dissolution; there’s enough detail to fill an entire movie of its own, and by the end of the scene, you feel like you’ve seen it without a single flashback.
A jittery comic suspense operates under the surface of many darker moments, from the delivery of divorce papers to an awkward encounter with child protective services. Whereas Nicole’s struggles are tinged with mounting sense of empowerment, Charlie stumbles through a Kafkaesque maze of legalese and the various outsized characters who live in its convoluted pathways. Not since David Fincher’s “Zodiac” has a movie placed such absorbing emphasis on the jigsaw puzzle of searching for solutions that may never fully resolve themselves.
When Charlie pays his own visit to the attorney’s office, he finds himself cowering under the barking demands of another hotshot lawyer to the stars (Ray Liotta, who seems to have stumbled into the frame from “Goodfellas”); his harsh demands are comically undercut by the cheaper option Charlie seeks for a second opinion (Alan Alda), a frumpy negotiator who basically tells Charlie he may as well give up. Alda’s real-life Parkinson’s tremors fuel what may be his saddest performance, and provide a shrewd allegory for the withering sense of defeat that bubbles up in Charlie’s consciousness as he comes to terms with the end of his marriage.
The specter of “Kramer vs. Kramer” casts a mighty shadow on these proceedings, but “Marriage Story” has an intimacy all to its own, and develops a unique tone that even Baumbach fans may not fully recognize at first. Nearly 15 years ago, with “The Squid and the Whale,” Baumbach explored the experience of divorce through the lens of teen angst; with “Marriage Story,” the gaze is more distinctly adult (and funneled to some extent through the end of his own marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh). At the same time, the earnest celebration of family that emerged in his “The Meyerowitz Stories” finds a steadier foundation here, as Charlie and Nicole grapple with their dueling priorities and what they mean for their child’s future.
That child is played with remarkable curiosity and innocence by Ashy Robertson, but ultimately becomes more of a prop who animates the couple’s argument that lies at the movie’s center: Charlie insists that the family reside in New York, even though the couple moved to Los Angeles for a prolonged period of time for Nicole’s work, and their child attends school there. Small details about their domestic life resurface as evidence in unnerving courtroom confrontations, leading the couple to wonder if they’re better off just talking things through.
But as they do, the repression of the legal procedure caves into raw explosions of rage. When Charlie finally loses his cool, Driver unleashes a kind of brutal intensity that might even jangle Kylo Ren’s nerves. At the same time, he’s able to channel the character’s passive-aggression into gentler tones. His rendition of “Being Alive” from “Company” at a dinner party is a mesmerizing achievement all by itself. Johansson, meanwhile, has become such a familiar onscreen presence after more than two decades that her talent is often hiding in plain sight. Her ability to carry some of the movie’s more frustrating showdowns illustrate her capacity to look stern and fragile at once.
While Baumbach always excels at crafting tense exchanges between prickly characters unable to come to grips with their true feelings, “Marriage Story” reflects a new level of narrative sophistication. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (“The Favourite”) captures some of the movie’s most absorbing moments in candid closeups while also knowing when to pull back, including one unexpectedly freaky sequence involving a kitchen knife. Meanwhile, Randy Newman’s inquisitive score highlights some of the bigger moments — as if the actor and director at the center of the story are imagining their dramas in true movie language, and can hear the music on the soundtrack along with us.
To that end, “Marriage Story” functions on a commentary on the type of genre it inhabits: that well-trod terrain of urban sophisticates careening through romantic dissatisfaction as they confront a new phase of life. Baumbach, however, finds a fresh angle by illustrating what it means to live inside that cycle rather than regarding it from afar. (“She makes me feel comfortable about even embarrassing things,” Charlie says when expressing his appreciation for Nicole, and the movie seems to do the same thing for its audience, easing us into their turmoil.) “Marriage Story” is less about divorce than it is about surviving it — a powerful reminder that every breakup story looks familiar until it happens to you, and then the truth hurts.
“Marriage Story” premiered at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and is screening at other fall festivals. It is available on Netflix and in theaters this fall.