It seems divorce is designed to bring out the ugliest traits in each of us, turning our anxieties and flaws into legal arguments that lay the groundwork for decisions that will reverberate throughout the rest of our lives. It’s constructed this way in order to protect people from spouses looking to exploit and cheat them out of what’s fairly owed to them, but like any system of laws, it has its unintended consequences. One of those is that people looking for amicable splits often meet an unfortunate reality: divorce is not for people who want to play nice.
Such is the case with the two characters at the center of Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s moving, difficult exploration of what it means to leave a person. Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are a pair of New York theater veterans, one an acclaimed director and the other a once-promising film actress who pivoted to starring in the former’s plays. Nicole’s decision to take a role in a television pilot in Los Angeles brings the emotional and creative resentment between the two to a head, causing the two to agree to a divorce. Both maintain they want a civil split, but the stress of moving their young son back and forth between L.A. and New York leads to Nicole hiring a feisty celebrity lawyer (Laura Dern) whose cutthroat tactics accelerate the pair’s bubbling emotions towards a breaking point.
This is Baumbach’s most personal work in years, an obvious reflection upon his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh that sees the beloved writer-director working in the same kind of tricky territory he explored in The Squid and the Whale. But it’s less about exposing his own wounds on screen than it is about trying to capture the entire concept of marriage through an enigmatic, endlessly watchable pair that you hate to watch tear each other apart. There’s no catharsis or easy answers for either of his characters; this is a film too honest to buy into the idea that people are concrete. Nicole and Charlie are complex and in some ways unknowable, never being afforded the luxury of defining themselves beyond what their lawyers tell them who they are.
None of it would really work without two actors who are totally locked into their characters, but luckily for Baumbach he has a powerful pair of leads in Driver and Johansson. Driver is particularly fantastic here, giving the performance of his career in a turn that sees him pushing himself to the limits of emotional decimation. He forms Charlie into an analytical, tortured man whose need for control leaves him broken by the way divorce doesn’t allow you any of it. He manages to articulate all the flaws and failures that pushed Nicole towards leaving Charlie without making him unsympathetic or inhuman. It’s the kind of performance that reminds why acting is such a remarkable art form in its own right, capturing all the pain and reality of watching love shrivel away without betraying that feeling with calculated, disingenuous choices.
Johansson is marvelous as well, never allowing Nicole to be damned by the audience for pushing the divorce down a legal path. Her broken dreams and emotional turmoil at Charlie’s indifferent hands are brought to startling life by Johansson’s heartbreaking performance, which gives her the chance to illuminate the hurt of being an invisible woman. One early scene in which Nicole describes how she met Charlie and how their relationship subsequently deteriorated sees Johansson in total command of the camera, whisking the audience through the entire story of a relationship with aching, raw honesty. While Driver gets the flashier part, frequently mentioned musical number and all, Johansson ensures you can’t forget about her even when she’s offscreen.
On the surface, Marriage Story isn’t a very riveting film beyond the two lead performances. It’s shot in a very plain, Netflix-friendly style, it’s perhaps a tad overlong, and its story of two rich white folks hashing out their marital problems isn’t exactly a story we’ve never seen before. But Baumbach’s script digs into your brain and doesn’t let go, painting a wrenching portrait of the highs and lows of romance that’s razor-sharp without sacrificing his trademark wit. Despite being in some ways the most cutting work in his filmography, there’s still moments of humor and warmth here. This is by no means a hopeless, misanthropic film in the ways most divorce stories and even Baumbach’s own works can skew. It’s a script that knows people are far too complex to boil down to plot points and monologues; people who love each other sometimes recognize their love doesn’t make much sense anymore, and the chaos that comes from that realization doesn’t mean the lovers involved are cruel people.
No matter the outcome, Baumbach refuses to betray the truth behind Charlie and Nicole, even if it means creating moments where the audience (or even himself) may not be on their side. With this resolve, Marriage Story dives into the core of what it means to love a person and then let them go, no matter how ugly that release can be. That honesty is what makes Marriage Story a seminal work in our society’s ongoing conversation with the concept of love, cementing itself as a film that mourns the loss of a romance but looks forward with a much-needed dose of hope. It knows that someone holding you too close and hurting you too deep is part of being alive.