Described as a love story told through a couple’s divorce, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (★★★★) reflects the aims of its central couple, striving to remain fair and balanced in a situation that is inherently unfair and leaves everyone involved feeling at least a little unbalanced. The love that still binds actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and director Charlie (Adam Driver) as family is their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). For him, and for their own sense of self and pride, both try to maintain some grace as their marriage ends. But grace is a struggle.
As the film captures with remarkable exactness, the world makes it easier for two splitting exes to tear at each other’s throats, especially after lawyers get involved. Whereas Baumbach’s Oscar-nominated The Squid and the Whale tackled divorce from the perspective of two sons watching their parents’ marriage come apart, Marriage Story rests on the shoulders of the adults in the room, and often those adults charge by the hour to battle on Nicole or Charlie’s behalf.
Meanwhile, the camera doesn’t so much rest on Johansson and Driver’s expressive faces, as probe them at every angle for the fear, guilt, regret, and hope that yank New Yorkers Nicole and Charlie in a million relatable directions. She’s like an open wound who can’t stop considering Charlie’s feelings. He seems to only absorb the full impact of their split sometime after it’s done — but once it hits, it hurts like hell. Following lighthearted intros of his and her most lovable traits, the movie allows ample room for Johansson and Driver’s exceptional performances to find each character’s less likable attributes. Nicole returns with Henry to her hometown of L.A., Charlie follows in order to be near his son, and they engage in a constant, contentious negotiation of time — and blame.
Structured like a play around rich monologues and pointed confrontations, the movie hits its stride in scenes between Nicole and her lawyer Nora, played by a fierce (isn’t she always?) Laura Dern. Nora proudly and professionally embodies all the rage that Nicole hides behind tears. Charlie’s options for counsel run from ruthless shark Jay, played in a bluntly droll turn by Ray Liotta, to Bert, the compassionate Alan Alda of divorce attorneys played by Alan Alda, in fine form. As raw as the emotion gets, the movie’s still dryly funny — funny enough to render Randy Newman’s incongruously jolly score even more distracting as this sensitive, somewhat overlong saga portrays the woefully heavy toll of even an “amicable” divorce.
Marriage Story is rated R, and opens November 15 at Landmark’s E Street Cinemas. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com/washington-d-c.