On the surface, Noah Baumbach’s films all seem to be about the same subject matter: upper class White Anglo Saxon Protestant couples whose relationships are failing because either one or both partners are selfish and self absorbed. It was like this for the refreshing The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young, and to some extent The Meyerowitz Stories which somewhat parallels the story in Wes Anderson’s darling The Royal Tenenbaums. But where those films have a more comedic undertone, Marriage Story is organic and real, serving a gut wrenching tale about the disillusionment and horrific pain of divorce without the lightheartedness of its predecessors.
The film centers around Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson), who are in the midst of a separation. Charlie is a self made New York playwright and director while Nicole is his star actress, mainly recognized, however, for a teen movie she was in early in her career in which she exposed her breasts. When Nicole is offered a movie role in Los Angeles and Charlie gets a chance to have his play shown on Broadway, they agree that their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) will be better off in California with Nicole; it is where her family is and where it would afford Henry some time with his cousins. While out in California, Nicole sets up a meeting with family lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) and everything she couldn’t say in the couples counseling comes spilling out. Though the couple had initially agreed to forgo any type of legal action and split amicably, Nicole hires Nora, leaving Charlie baffled, blindsided, and desperate to get off his heels on the defensive. Most importantly, it is where he begins to see that their relationship could not be saved.
Marriage Story is both written and directed by Noah Baumbach. The story is tightly woven with no loose ends and the directing is seamlessly flawless. When Nicole is talking about her relationship with Nora, Noah does not cut or splice in any music to tug at our emotional strings, he allows Scarlett Johansson to act, and in doing so, challengers her to force us to sympathize with this character. The method is more than successful.
I am a huge fan of Adam Driver. It is my belief that he is one of the most talented actors of my generation. His performance in this film is on par with his performance in Scorsese’s Silence. Yet, the films strength comes from the chemistry between both leads and Noah casted each part perfectly. You believe that Charlie and Nicole have a history, that their not just two random people thrown together. You can tell time went into crafting every nuanced characteristic. It all comes to a head in the epic climax, a verbal jousting between Charlie and Nicole where they both do their best to do their worst to one another; it’s like death by a thousand cuts. In that moment, Adam and Scarlett are lost in these characters and all that is left is dust and ash.
The worst thing about this film, is that you actually want these characters to be together, and I believe that was Noah’s intention. Some relationships are so toxic that, yes, divorce is the only logical outcome, but watching Charlie and Nicole, you can sense that they really do love each other and the most difficult thing about separation isn’t the pain of losing someone you love, but the continuous pain that follows afterward, splitting visitation rights, realizing your shortcomings not only as a spouse but as a parent as well, separating your entire life from another and watching that other life continue on without you. By the end of the film, you’re torn apart and that feeling stays with you even after credits role. Hopefully what we understand is that even through divorce, love is not all lost.