Noel Baumbach delivers a sharp masterpiece about a married couple going through a divorce. Marriage Story is an honest and brutal experience anchored on a remarkable screenplay and brought to life by career-best performances. The opening scene alone packs an emotional punch other films could not muster in their entirety. Charlie and Nicole Barber charmingly recount all the things they love about each other and Baumbach reveal it is an exercise assigned by a mediator.
Charlie (Adam Driver) is a successful theater director in New York. His latest production stars his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a former teen actress. The couple is undergoing a rough patch in their relationship. To complicate matters, she accepts a role in a television pilot in Los Angeles. She left the theater company and brought their son Henry to live with her mother in California. Nicole decides to hire a legal counsel. Charlie is served with divorce papers and is advised to lawyer up. He first meets with the brassy Jay Marotta but chooses to hire the more affable Bert Spitz. On his recommendation, he encourages Charlie to leave New York and stay in California for the sake of his child custody appeal. Confused, he fires Spitz and hires Marotta, leaving no chance for an amicable settlement.
“I can tell you want to give me a note,” Nicole tells her husband after a performance. Charlie feigns a response until he finally replies, “So, there are two things. I thought your posture at the top of scene seven is still too dignified and at the end, I could tell you were pushing for the emotion.” She leaves the room to stifle her cries with a pillow. This devastating scene early in the film should prepare the audience for one of the most punishing yet cathartic verbal jousts put on screen. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson will be hard-pressed to find roles as exceptional as the Barbers.
The brilliance of Marriage Story is creating characters that feel like real people with lived-in lives – this requires keen observation. More than pain or anger, it is the utter confusion of Charlie and Nicole that perfectly sums up their experience. Consider this fleeting shot: Nicole looks bewildered as her husband and son sleep next to her. Is it possible to let a man she intends to divorce sleep in her bedroom? The film underscores the emotional complexity of separation: it stems from people trying to walk away from one another in the face of reasons to stay together.
Yet as a testament to his skills, Baumbach managed to balance out the drama with humor. Merritt Wever is the winsome sister of Nicole. She is a delightful bundle of nervous energy as she serves the divorce papers to Charlie. Laura Dern goes full-on Renata Klein as Nora. She takes off her jacket, removes her stiletto shoes, and delivers one of the fakest gal pal schticks to entice Nicole into hiring her.
By the end of the film, the reason behind the split-up of the Barbers remains indefinable. There is no irrefutable proof for or against their accusations. Marriage Story neither take sides nor asks the audience to take sides – it was never its point. The film is a stark reminder of the power of divorce to reinforce the foulest in us and still foster hope in the end. Noel Baumbach found grace underneath the ugliness of separation.