What should be so simple often hides tangles of nuance and complexity, as is frequently, heartbreakingly, the case in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. An epic, intimate opus of a middle-class couple navigating divorce, it is a film that hinges on apparently basic dualities — man and woman, east coast and west, stage and screen — using them as a navigable space in which to play with the knotty demolition that emerges when the central pillar of life as we know it is ripped away; when its safe, superficial edifice is stripped back.
Baumbach, whose lightness of touch has been precision-honed over the years through the casual melancholy of the likes of The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha and — most recently — The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), establishes his protagonists with a breezy opening two-hander in which Adam Driver’s theatre director Charlie and Scarlett Johansson’s actress Nicole list what they love about their respective partners over a sprightly montage of appealing vignettes. This nostalgic exercise sets up the central pair’s commonalities and divergences neatly, solidifying the balance and dichotomy through which Baumbach will facilitate his thematic discussion. It places Charlie and Nicole in an idyllic bubble, where they might be free to converse and conflict without external consequences — an illusion the director spends the runtime thoroughly undermining through the mess with which he populates the film.
Sentimentality permeates Marriage Story, reassuringly easing the spectator into proceedings before the great deconstruction takes place. This is set up through the early use of gently precise sight gags and tiny, reassuring gestures that suggest ongoing levity and define the hopes that will be dashed. The romance and affection shared by Charlie and Nicole is palpable, and so when the couple — who are in the process of separating from the outset — thoughtlessly kiss like they used to, or trade jokes, stories and dreams, it sets up an aching suggestion that the barely-seen status quo could somehow be re-established. What is key to the Netflix film’s success is that it ploughs ahead with the inevitable dissolution of their relationship in spite of this unshakeable, naive optimism.
Channeling this nostalgia, and building its conversations off the back of its neatly-drawn dualities, Marriage Story finds its meat in the magnification of minutiae — that tedious day-to-day drag that comes with renegotiating the established order from the bottom up; travel logistics, financial quibbles and skirmishes over evenings and weekends with infant son Henry (Azhy Robertson). The characters are separated into largely parallel but sporadically overlapping narratives when Nicole moves out of the couple’s New York apartment to take up TV work in Los Angeles, much to the disdain of Broadway devotee Charlie. Both must knuckle down into new, independent existences that are inextricably linked by the volatile tangle of their increasingly tricky divorce and a desperate jostle to both remain relevant in Henry’s life. It’s a grind, with Charlie navigating the gruelling demands of his theatre company without his leading lady while Nicole relearns the specific requirements for professional and social success in Tinseltown without Charlie’s often-overbearing guiding hand.
Both Marriage Story performers carry their roles with an assured and lived-in humanity cultivated over equally storied and diverse careers. It’s difficult, mature work that requires much under-the-surface conveyance of powerful, complicated emotions that threaten, but frequently fail, to break through façades of repression and decorum. Their easy chemistry in quieter moments exacerbates the pain that comes with the escalating conflict, as their restraint threatens to give way. Driver is quietly desperate and perplexed by the obstacles he is forced to negotiate, while Johansson radiates stoicism and strength that tenuously obscures fragility. When the explosion inevitably comes, in a stripped-back, harrowing late-game set piece, it brings at once cathartic relief and earth-shattering devastation with both Driver and Johansson giving turns that will cement their standing in cinema history as top-tier performers for years to come.
The central dynamic, and Marriage Story itself, is held together by an innate love for culture — touchstones like Stephen Sondheim songs and Halloween costumes are used to evoke the breadth and history of the characters, but that affection is also baked into the film’s makeup. It deploys a triple-serve of old-fashioned movie magic in the three-headed legal beast that is the divorce attorneys played by Hollywood stalwarts Laura Dern (representing Nicole as postfeminist firebrand Nora), Alan Alda and Ray Liotta. The trio’s inclusion, and the various directions in which they vie to wrench the protagonists and manipulate their interests, animates and colours proceedings, as do irrepressibly joyous supporting turns from Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Nicole’s acerbic, wine-chugging mother Sandra and adorably inept sister Cassie, respectively. It’s all reinforced by the image’s tactile, grainy celluloid aesthetic and an effortlessly melancholic score by bona fide sentimentalist Randy Newman.
Marriage Story is ultimately a work that comes from the depth of Baumbach’s own experiences, derived as much of it is from his 2013 divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, and much of the film’s specificity and pain can only be wrought from lived experience. It’s inevitable, then, that while the film sets out wholly committed to its double billing, it pivots whole-heartedly in its final stretch towards Charlie’s perspective. Driver, playing a clear Baumbach surrogate, guides the Marriage Story arc through to its resolution, suggesting that some deeply personal preoccupations are being exorcised onscreen. While undermining the feature’s initial commitment to parity between sexes, those last few grace notes are powerful in their execution nonetheless.
Ultimately, what Baumbach does with Marriage Story is take those fundamental tenets of our lives — love, parenthood, home — that seem on their face so simple, and shows how they all contain unknowable multitudes of confusion and hurt, while their purity and immutability will forever remain. At once riveting and entertaining, while inciting in the viewer visceral and arduous self-reflection, Marriage Story is an uncompromising and deeply affectionate reflection on what pulls us apart and yet what keeps us bound together despite it all.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.