Steeped in auto-fiction, crisscrossing between memoir and artifice until the distinction hardly matters, much of Noah Baumbach’s cinema responds to an urge to heal. His 1995 debut feature Kicking and Screaming chronicled a father’s struggle to overcome a post-college days spleen; the 2005 The Squid and the Whale a son surviving his parents’ divorce; Margot at the Wedding (2007) and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) focus on dysfunctional families fighting and exorcising feuds and traumas, a theme that’s also traversed many a collaboration between Baumbach and Greta Gerwig—surfacing perhaps most evidently in the 2015 Mistress America. Another study of broken families, Marriage Story feels like treading into familiar turf. Chronologically, it’s a follow-up to The Meyerowitz Stories; thematically, it harkens back to the portrait of a couple’s collapse dissected in The Squid and the Whale—this time told not from a child’s perspective, but from the parents’ own.
Adam Driver is Charlie; Scarlett Johansson is Nicole. They are a married duo living in New York, Baumbach’s home turf, but hail from different states: Nicole a Los Angeles transplant, Charlie an Indiana native. She’s left California and a TV career still in its embryonic stages to follow him to the city, where he directs a theatre company, and she serves as lead in his productions—conceptual pieces people alternatively describe as “edgy,” “avant-garde,” and “genius.” Robbie Ryan’s handheld camerawork introduces them with a preamble of quiet domestic candor—or rather, each introduce the other, as Nicole’s voiceover lists Charlie’s idiosyncrasies, and vice versa. But these are no valentines, and the soothing feeling they elicit, much like the free-floating camera movements, soon come to a screeching halt. Charlie and Nicole are separating: the lists, imbued with longing and affection, are letters a counsellor has asked them to write, but which neither has enough courage to read to the other. They have a child together, whose custody will soon be up for dispute. Nicole is set to move back to L.A., Charlie fights for the three to remain in New York. This is the story of a couple disintegrating, where the divorce looms as some inescapable outcome all throughout, a journey that’s at once devastating, hilarious, empathetic, and heart-wrenchingly vivid.
In a tale whose ending is essentially telegraphed from the start, Marriage Story thrums with the energy of some pulsating organ. It’s a deeply personal journey that ultimately transcends the couple at its center, precisely because it understands both halves down to their innermost quirks. Baumbach (here again on double writer-director duty) has possibly never penned anything this stellar, a script where screwball comedy chuckles teem with tragedy. But it is the perfect symbiosis between writing, directing, and Jennifer Lame’s work in the editing room that allows the plot to shift tones in the time that lasts an hairsbreadth, with scenes that carom off excruciatingly funny segments to others of lacerating sadness. In one, Nicole’s attempts to hand Charlie the divorce papers stall in a series of hilarious mishaps, a towering crescendo of laughs that plummets in a shattering silence. In another, an attempt to find a truce and escape the courtroom agonies draws husband and wife into a ferocious altercation, only to default to a tear-jerking embrace.
Marriage Story could have all easily slipped into a pathetic, melodramatic terrain; that it never quite does is Baumbach’s merit as much as his outstanding leads—Driver and Johansson concurrently injecting unhinged force and vulnerability into their parts. Talking of blurring the line between truth and fiction, Johansson was herself going through a divorce when Baumbach first approached her, and there’s an ineffable vividness in the way she embodies Nicole’s drama, straddling pride and fragility. But in a script peppered with a few arresting monologues, it’s when Driver and Johansson are brought together that Marriage Story reaches its most poignant heights, thrusting both onto a magnetic field that pushes and pulls them apart. And it’s interesting to see Jade Healy’s production design amplify the widening gulf between soon-to-be ex-husband and wife by fleshing out the New York - L.A. antinomy undergirding the split as a fight for space. For Charlie and Nicole’s battle is also a topographical one - a transcontinental quest to salvage a union that reads (in a way that stretches back to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall) as a fight between two irreconcilable cities and the philosophies that come attached to them. All along Charlie’s legal battle, people try to cajole him into abandoning crammed New York to settle in spacious L.A. But the interiors people in Marriage Story inhabit West of the country (scarcely furbished apartments, sleek high-rise offices, plush homes) are just vast as the emotional void their tenants harbor.
Clocking at 136-minutes, the pace may not be not even all the way through, all the more so when Baumbach zeroes in on the perilous judicial journey the two embark on, leaving the plot to venture into court procedural terrain. But if so much emphasis is devoted to the backroom fights and negotiations between lawyers, it’s because Marriage Story is a movie about a couple’s divorce as much as a study of how the divorce legal-complex operates: a critique of its apparatus, its choreographies, its judicial etiquette, as well as the financial and emotional costs it demands from those who go through it. It also helps that the pantheon of lawyers hovering above the couple should feature other pitch-perfect cast choices, with a scene-stealing Laura Dern as Nicole’s powerhouse lawyer (her rant against the Judeo-Christian conception of the woman as a pristine holy Virgin adds yet another show-stopping monologue to the film’s long list), and Alan Alda in an affable father-like lawyer stint that’s swiftly taken over by his replacement, a buggy-eyed, raging Ray Liotta.
Told as it may be for the most part from Charlie’s perspective, Marriage Story does not side with him. And this may well be its greatest merit. Perceptively, Baumbach chooses to withhold judgment over the couple’s two halves, and pours as much affection and empathy into each. This is a generous story: for all the resentments and insults they fire at each other, neither Charlie nor Nicole ever give in to their lawyers’ advice that their past life together must be re-written to ensure a win in court. “It’s not as simple as not being in love anymore,” Johansson describes her conundrum to Dern in an early meeting. What makes Marriage Story so humane and piercing is that it understands this as the kind of truth no one outside her marriage could ever really grasp. And it respects it as such.