In the two back-to-back voiceovers that open Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, a New York couple, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), lay out in list form the things they love most about each other while a montage shows us examples of their mutual fondness in action. Nicole, Charlie tells us, is a master gift-giver (sitting on the couch in their bohemian Brooklyn apartment, he unwraps a trumpet and plays it, badly, as she laughs in delight). When she plays with their 8-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson), Nicole gets down on the floor and truly plays, a parenting talent that eludes the responsible but work-obsessed Charlie. She’s also his favorite actress, he notes, as we see her onstage playing the title role in a modern interpretation of Sophocles’ Electra, directed by Charlie himself.
As the voiceover switches to Nicole’s point of view, the audience is able to put together more context clues about their life together. In the small but acclaimed theater company they run together, Charlie acts not only as director but as caretaker in chief, making sure every cast member feels valued and seen. He’s a good cook, an efficient housekeeper, a devoted father, even a snappy dresser. “He never looks embarrassing,” observes Nicole with amused affection, “which isn’t easy for a man.”
The warmth and tenderness of this opening sequence abruptly gives way to disorientation as we learn the context for which these love letters have been composed. The couple is in the office of a professional mediator, who has encouraged them to write down the reasons they fell in love as a way of starting their divorce proceedings from a place of mutual goodwill. As it turns out, even that small effort at reconciliation is a failure. Nicole, feeling ambushed by the intimacy of the letter-writing exercise, storms out before either of them can read their lists aloud. It’s the last time writer-director Baumbach allows us direct access to either character’s thoughts, but the letters establish a picture of what the two have lost—the domestic life they created together and must now unravel, one strand at a time—that serves as the emotional backdrop for the rest of Marriage Story, Baumbach’s most mature and generous work to date.
The autobiographical element in Marriage Story may be as strong as in any Baumbach film since 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, which turned memories of his parents’ contentious split into an acerbic coming-of-age tale starring a young Jesse Eisenberg as the director’s teenage proxy. Here, his unsparing eye is fixed on the dissolution of a marriage that looks not unlike his own to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh: a creative partnership (Leigh played key supporting parts in Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, and the two of them co-wrote the latter’s story) between two successful artists with a young son (in real life, not an 8-year-old but an infant who was less than a year old when they filed their papers). Leigh has been very private about their 2010 breakup and Baumbach’s subsequent relationship with actress and director Greta Gerwig. In 2016, she told a journalist only that she and her ex “co-parent really well.” But the journey from cohabitation to bicoastal shared parenthood can’t have been an easy one, judging by this blistering portrait of what Baumbach has called “the divorce-industrial complex.”
Despite Nicole and Charlie’s mutual insistence on splitting amicably and dividing their assets without legal intervention—as they keep reminding their friends, their barely-solvent theater company hardly amounts to a fortune worth battling over—they find themselves, half against their wills, hiring high-powered lawyers whose aggressive negotiating tactics steer the couple inevitably toward a court trial. Nicole, a Los Angeles native with roots in the entertainment business (like Leigh, daughter of the late actor Vic Morrow and the late screenwriter Barbara Turner), wants to move their child to the West Coast to be near her family and look for work in television. It’s a reasonable-sounding request, given that her husband called all the geographical shots during their time together. But as Charlie points out to his lawyer, his directing work is inextricably tied to New York, and it’s the only home Henry’s ever known.
Since neither spouse will accept the prospect of living on a different coast from their son, the scene is set for a wrenching custody fight. As the process wears on, both Nicole and Charlie will find themselves saying—or hearing their attorneys say—things they never thought they would, even turning their former beloveds’ most intimate confidences into legal arguments that question their fitness as a parent. In those mid-film trial scenes, Marriage Story becomes a courtroom drama laced with sharp social comedy. At one hearing, the judge asks the couple to hurry up their debate about how to divvy up the MacArthur “Genius Grant” Charlie has just been awarded, noting that there are plenty of less-privileged couples on the benches behind them waiting to have their own day in court.
When the two lawyers do meet, whether in court or, even better, in the pretrial bargaining meetings where they lay out ruthless strategies in full view of their mortified clients, it’s a satisfying Clash of the Awful-but-Funny Titans. Laura Dern, as Nicole’s lawyer Nora, is all touchy-feely sisterhood wrapped around a cutthroat competitive core. An early scene where the two women bond as Nicole hesitantly shares her side of the story is straightforwardly moving, and we understand the trust Nicole implicitly places in Nora’s warm yet professional welcome (complete with elegant tea service and pastries). But when Dern’s sharp elbows start jabbing in the direction of Ray Liotta as Charlie’s more crudely grasping attorney—“Eat, Drink and Remarry” reads an embroidered pillow in his swank office—the movie’s mood changes from bittersweet to acid. Baumbach’s finely tuned script is able to pull off these gradations in tone—something that might not always be said of his past domestic comedies, where an ambient sourness has sometimes prevented me from engaging emotionally in the story, and the director’s narrow focus on the dynamics of one small dysfunctional group has often left me feeling claustrophobic. More often, the tone of this movie hangs somewhere between the bittersweet romantic comedy of Annie Hall and the divorce-weepie tradition of Kramer vs. Kramer.
That 1979 Best Picture winner was a relic of its time in its sexist treatment of Meryl Streep’s conflicted mother character, who is shamed in court (and arguably by the movie itself) for her unmaternal behavior. Marriage Story is far more equitable in its vision of two flawed but loving parents. If anything, Baumbach suggests that Charlie, his ostensible stand-in, may be the party more at fault in the whole mess. He can be maddeningly self-centered between bouts of guilt-fueled generosity, and he’s flatly unwilling to even consider upending his life for his wife’s sake the way she’s already done for him. But in the latter half of the film especially, we gain more sympathy for the devoted but flailing Charlie. Nicole and Henry have made a relatively soft landing in the warm embrace of her mother (the deliciously dotty Julie Hagerty) and her anxious but loving sister (Merritt Wever, memorable in a completely different role than her turn as a tough cop in Unbelievable). Charlie, meanwhile, is renting a sad L.A. one-bedroom, taking Henry on weekends, and trying to please an inscrutable bureaucrat sent on a home visit to observe his parenting.
There are two musical numbers in this last half of the movie, performed by the leads—not Crazy Ex-Girlfriend–style eruptions of Hollywood-musical logic into the story but one scene of a lightly rehearsed performance at a family party and one of an impromptu solo at a piano bar. I won’t spoil what the numbers are, or how perfectly they express the place each character has arrived at after all they’ve put each other through. But I will say that I cried during both performances (even though neither Johansson nor Driver can exactly be said to possess Broadway-grade singing chops) and that the mood of lyrical tenderness they invoked felt entirely earned by the story that had come before.
In an early scene at the couple’s New York apartment, the babysitter inadvertently blurts as Nicole and Charlie return from a night out, “Wow, you’re so attractive! Sorry, I just said that out loud.” The extreme physical charisma and high media visibility of Johansson and Driver as actors—it’s the Black Widow divorcing Kylo Ren, for God’s sake!—sometimes has the same distracting effect on the viewer. Is Baumbach being too easy on himself by casting Driver, the reigning indie thirst-trap of the moment, as himself in this semi-fictionalized retelling of his own divorce? Would Leigh recognize any part of herself in the character of the passionate but unfulfilled Nicole?
These questions, though they’re inevitable in considering a movie as frankly personal as Marriage Story, are ultimately immaterial to the the quality of the film, which to my mind may be the best one Baumbach has yet made (along, perhaps, with The Squid and the Whale, his other venture into semi-straightforward autobiography). His lead actors remind us why they’re in such high demand to play everything from sentient operating systems to doubt-ridden Portuguese missionaries to Russian-trained superspies to space-opera edge lords. Johansson and Driver are superb performers, attentive, generous, versatile, and able to register minute shifts of feeling and understanding on their admittedly well-proportioned features. They don’t need special effects or high-concept premises to work their spell on an audience; they can take a pause at the door of a room or a glance exchanged over the back of a sleeping child and make them into moments recognizable to anyone who’s hesitated at the threshold of a no longer viable life, still unsure how to move on to what’s next.