Marriage may be difficult, but divorce can be even harder.
There can indeed be stresses for couples that separate but still have to remain in civil contact with each other for the sake of co-parenting their children. And that’s the tricky waltz through a field of landmines that director Noah Baumbach makes his two lead characters dance in his latest film Marriage Story.
Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a rising star in the New York theater world, having directed his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in a number of critically acclaimed productions. When an offer for a TV pilot comes in for Nicole, she sees it as opportunity to return to the Hollywood acting career she had set aside to help Charlie fulfill his theatrical world ambitions. Charlie, however, sees her desire to return to Los Angeles after several years as a betrayal of what he has been building in New York City. It is also the breaking point for their marriage, which had already been laboring under a large number of stains and stresses. With Nicole, and their son Henry, in LA, Charlie finds himself having to establish bi-costal residency as a way to help him win custody of Henry during their divorce proceedings. And while Charlie and Nicole promise to try and keep things civil between them through the whole divorce process, their competitive lawyers ratchet up the tension between the two until it explodes in one of the most raw, emotional scenes seen in a film this year.
Hollywood has examined divorce a lot over the decades, from 1937’s The Awful Truth through 1979’s Kramer Vs Kramer to now, so there is not much to the general material that hasn’t been explored in terms of theme. Baumbach himself has previously trod this ground in his 2005 film The Squid And The Whale. But that film was told from the viewpoint of the children of divorce.
The real success of Marriage Story is in the space that it gives Driver and Johannson to explore their respective characters and perhaps exercise some acting muscles that they don’t normally get to flex in the bigger, blockbuster films audiences normally see them in. Johansson is able to find varying, shifting shades to play in her character as she redefines herself while trying to navigate her new world of single-motherhood. There is a complexity to Driver’s Charlie, who can be so singleminded about his career that he neglects his wife but can still turn that laserbeam focus onto his son in an instance when needed.
And Baumbach never really paints either one as the complete villain of the story. They each bear some fault in the overall communication breakdown of their relationship. And they each make mistakes during the divorce process that never seem intentional. They are trying their hardest to maintain at least a few threads of their relationship needed for co-parenting their son while simultaneously rediscovering who they are outside of their relationship.
In addition to the truthfulness in both the lead performances, Baumbach’s script is well observed in other areas. There are the shark lawyers who have more of a desire to win than to do what could be best for the couple and their son. In that way, Marriage Story also serves as an indictment of what the divorce lawyer industry does to the process and to the couples involved. And both Laura Dern and Ray Liotta respectively as Nicole and Charlie’s lawyers do some great, juicy work here. The gossipy members of the theater company also feel very true to life for anyone who has spent time in that world.