Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.
An alternately comedic and heartbreaking tale of divorce, Marriage Story begins with two passionate declarations of love, from each participant in the impending drama. Charlie (Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman) goes first, delivering a “What I love about Nicole” list that is as sweet (and funny) as it is comprehensive. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit) goes next, with an equally full set of reasons why she loves Charlie. How tragic then, that we immediately cut to the office of a divorce mediator, where both sit, sad and sullen, facing the end of their romantic relationship. Can two people who have cared so deeply, the one for the other, separate so easily?
That is the question posed – and answered – in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s new, thoroughly engaging take on couplehood, though what Charlie and Nicole go through is hardly easy. What starts out gentle and genteel devolves, before long, into recrimination, anger and tears. Were it but the two of them, perhaps the tension would be less, but they have an 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson, After the Wedding), and given that Charlie wants to stay in New York while Nicole relocates to Los Angeles, the custody battle becomes ever more complicated. Indeed, complexity is the name of the narrative game here, as our sympathies shift between partners with each new bit of information we learn.
Baumbach already tackled the nastiness of divorce once before in the exquisite 2005 The Squid and the Whale, though there the emphasis was much more on the children. In Marriage Story, Henry is a major character, but we’re squarely inside Charlie and Nicole’s heads. Given that they don’t know their own minds, it’s a brutal journey of self-discovery, as much for us as for them. Fortunately, even the worst of situations can be mined for jokes, however dark, and so the movie is far from relentlessly bleak. Plus, watching people learn how to evolve can be beautiful, and is certainly so in this case.
Charlie is an experimental theater director and Nicole his lead actress and muse. She gave up an early promising Hollywood career to join him in New York, and never left, though she now resents the sacrifice. Both appreciate the other’s contributions to their mutual life, but have grown stale in the cohabitation. Charlie, especially, though loving, takes Nicole for granted. If he is the dominant (however quietly so) one in the relationship, early on, as the story progresses he increasingly loses his way, unable to understand how his life is falling apart, while Nicole, ever freer, embraces the change.
Both leads are wonderful and fully committed to the roles. I particularly appreciate the way the film – and their performances – makes me question my own initial identification with Charlie, forcing me later to reevaluate those feelings. It’s not that he is bad and Charlie good, or vice versa, but that they each have an equally valid claim to self-empowerment and truth. Beyond Driver and Johansson, the terrific supporting cast – including Alan Alda (The Longest Ride), Laura Dern (Trial by Fire), Julie Hagerty (A Master Builder) and Ray Liotta (Sticky Notes) – keeps us on our toes, helping us laugh just when we want to cry. By the end, though we have been through the wringer, we are better for the catharsis. Such is the role of art in our lives, and great art like this offers true enlightenment.