When we first meet Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johannson) they list off the things they love about each other — small traits, little quirks. Each from their point of view. As Noah Baumbach soon reveals, we’re in a mediation session, one last ditch attempt for a couple in crisis to be civil with each other.
He’s a theater director. She’s an actor, has starred in his plays and Hollywood beckons with a pilot. They were the quintessential New York couple.
We’ve seen many films about divorce and separation, told many different ways, but Baumbach packs his film with especially deep gut punches, hitting the emotional heart. The situation might be familiar but what makes this film brilliant are the incredibly raw and intimate performances from Driver and Johansson.
The separation starts off amicably, as Charlie is surprised to learn that Nicole wants to end things. Then the lawyers get involved. Caught in the middle is their young son, Henry. Baumbach guides through the treacherous tropes of divorce proceedings, Ray Liotta, Laura Dern and Alan Alda are absolutely incredible in their roles as shark divorce lawyers. It’s a true acting showcase and everyone is brilliant. Dern was born to play Nora Fanshaw and Baumhbach gives her a memorable scene that would make Renata Klein’s jaw drop. It’s a showcase moment for Dern.
Baumbach’s script goes all the way to emotional heartbreak as the split gets uglier and uglier and Henry is shuttled back and forth between his parents. Character traits that were once adorable are now despicable and used as ammunition in the ugly divorce proceedings. That’s divorce. It can be ugly as hell. An interaction is suddenly used in court, and Baumbach captures the shock.
There are tender moments, funny moments, laugh out loud moments. But if ever this is a showcase for Driver and Johnansson’s work, here you have it. After her recent run of action films, it is so utterly refreshing to see Johansson in a role that harkens back to her great performances (Lost in Translation, Her, Vicky Christina Barcelona) and Driver just blows you away. At first, he’s confused, “She would never say that or do that,” to “Why is she doing this?” to “I need a lawyer.” He takes you on that journey; it’s a raw one and a painful one. The Sondheim moment and later a moment where he finally breaks destroy you. It’s brutal and it’s honest and there’s such humanity to the characters that you can’t help but feel sympathetic, even to Charlie.
What Baumbach gets so right are the authentic details of relationships. He looks at the sacrifices you make. He looks at resentment. Adjusting. It’s not happy. He looks at the things you once love about a person and how those things turn into what you can despise. The lovers become enemies and people change. He looks at how Charlie and Nicole have changed. If you’re in a rock steady marriage or relationship, it makes you stop for a moment to appreciate your other half and remember the things you love about that person. Marriage is work, parenting is work. You’re in it for the long haul, or you just stop, you grow apart, but you will always love that person, no matter what.
Baumbach’s story is heartfelt and compassionate. No one here is portrayed as the baddie. You don’t have to be in a messy relationship to get it; you can be in the most in-love best-thing-that-ever-happened-to-you relationship, you can be single, you could have had your heartbroken, but the story remains universally relatable in depicting how you can hate a person and yet love them all the same.
Nicole just wanted to go back to LA because it’s where her career thrives. Charlie doesn’t want to move there because he sees them as a New York family. It’s complicated because life, feelings and relationships are complicated. And that’s the gut punch that Baumbach delivers with sadness and lots of laughs because even in times of sadness, you still find plenty to laugh over.
Julie Haggarty is a superb as Nicole’s mother. She has a bond with Charlie too, and when the marriage falls apart, Baumbach captures that loss. Charlie doesn’t just lose his wife; he loses her family, and that special relationship with his mother-in-law.
A stellar score from Randy Newman heightens the feelings and Robbie Ryan’s cinematography comes in for those close-ups capturing the emotion and the separation the characters are going through. Marriage Story is a timeless look at relationships that will be talked about for years to come. Marriage Story is perfection. It’s emotional, exceptional and beautiful, with flawless performances from all involved.