This affecting portrait of a marriage coming to an end gets beyond marriage and divorce to tell a story about all the struggles and vulnerabilities that make us human.
At first glance, Charlie and Nicole Barber could be considered the ideal couple. They’re unbelievably well-matched in creativity, spirit, passion for their jobs, their son Henry, and, most importantly, each other. The two are almost annoyingly perfect. As their babysitter awkwardly remarks to them as they arrive home, “wow, you’re both so attractive.”
But with every passing second of Marriage Story, director Noah Baumbach peels back a layer of the carefully constructed facade the two have built, revealing a pair of woefully flawed and inexplicably human people who, more than anything, desire happiness.
The film opens with Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in couples therapy, sharing affirmations of love through letters they wrote. Charlie begins by stating what he loves most about Nicole; how good she is with Henry, at giving haircuts, how compassionate and competitive she is. However, Nicole decides she isn’t comfortable sharing her letter and leaves. It’s in the therapist’s office where we learn the two are getting a divorce.
The conflict between the two stems from the fact that Nicole has had so many opportunities to advance her career by moving to Los Angeles, while Charlie, contemptuous of LA and hoping to serve his career, always convinced her that it was in the family’s best interest to stay in New York.
This decision to remain in New York plants seeds of resentment and anger that eventually leads the two to separate. Nicole moves to Los Angeles and takes Henry with her. At first, Charlie is fine with this. Although he’s a bit surprised, he believes that Henry will get to spend half of his time with his mother in LA and the other with him in New York, and that the divorce will be relatively painless. But as lawyers, money, and the future of their son are brought into the mix, old wounds are opened and a marriage that was once built on love and respect turns into a bitter pissing contest in which it looks impossible for either partner to come out a winner.
With every small barb and microaggression Nicole and Charlie trade back and forth, you can feel their anger building, and see them drifting apart in real-time. Baumbach uses this close examination to poke fun at the absurdity of divorce — the fact that it can pit two loving and passionate people against each other, making them say things they never thought they’d say and do things they could never imagine themselves doing.
There are notes of Baumbach’s previous work here, along with films like Kramer Vs Kramer and Ingmar Bergman’s masterful Scenes From a Marriage. And while Marriage Story wears its influences on its sleeve, the film that results is entirely its own thing. The way it seamlessly shifts between tone and genre while tackling incredibly difficult and complex themes is brilliant and unprecedented.
In his previous films like The Meyerowitz Stories, Frances Ha, and The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach perfectly captured the incessant pain and the undeniable pleasure of human interaction. The incomparable dread of speaking to someone you don’t want to talk to, the joy of sharing things with those you love and trust. His ability to find humor in this tension, and capture it with grace, is what makes Marriage Story so good.
While the crux of the film is divorce, an event the thought of which can cause the bravest of souls to shudder, Baumbach never forgets to find the funny side of situations — no matter how dark and offbeat they may be. One scenario involving a Charlie and a knife is legitimately genius and showcases his ability to create tension, pairing it with some fantastic physical comedy on the part of Adam Driver.
Baumbach is himself a child of divorce. Watching his maturation through his filmography is also a huge piece of what makes this such a gratifying film. In The Squid and the Whale, we saw his perspective on divorce through the eyes of a bitter and pessimistic teenager watching his life fall apart before his very eyes. But in Marriage Story, which is in part based on Baumbach’s relationship with his ex-wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, we see his views on marriage and divorce through a vastly different worldview.
Divulging incredibly intimate and at times extremely self-damning details of their relationship shows a lot of emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and growth on Baumbach’s part. Marriage Story is so specific and confessional that you can’t help but be spellbound by the portrait he paints.
But if Baumbach is the architect of this home, Driver and Johansson are the foundation that keeps it standing. Beginning with the aforementioned opening scene, we’re meant to view this film from two very different yet shockingly similar perspectives.
Charlie is a hot-headed, neurotic, and brilliant theater director, who refuses to compromise in his work or his relationship with his wife. He is also self-absorbed and comically aloof in regards to his wife’s needs.
Nicole is an actress; impassioned, caring, brilliant, and similarly dedicated to her work and her family. She tends to be distant, withholding her feelings from everyone in fear of confrontation.
Every moment the two share on-screen together is miraculous, whether they’re viscerally screaming at each other or sharing tender moments — such as reading to their son in bed, or Nicole ordering lunch for Charlie during a divorce meeting.
It isn’t just a chemistry or kinship Driver and Johansson have with each other as actors, it’s a shared sense of longing and desire for freedom and fulfillment on the part of the characters, both of whom thought they’d find that fulfillment in each other. Instead, they’re forced to find it in their son, their work, or, in some cases, other people.
We see ourselves in Charlie and Nicole — the good, bad, and ugly. Every facet of these two makes them, and the film, special and heart-achingly relatable.
And while the two are undeniably flawed, neither are made out to be the villain. They’re both victims of the process. You can root for both, even as you cringe when they screw up. The film is both critical and extremely sympathetic to two people who want the best for each other, but aren’t entirely aware of the damage they’re causing.
Even with all of the intensity and anger displayed by Driver, Johansson, and Baumbach alike, Marriage Story never becomes a wholly pessimistic look at love. Through this film, Baumbach suggests that, while divorce can be a painful and draining process, both parties can find solace in the fact that while you may not always be together, you can grow apart.
All of this is punctuated by a scene towards the end of the film that I can’t spoil. All I’ll say is that Adam Driver sings Sondheim, and it’s spectacular. Along with being thematically resonant and narratively fulfilling, it’s one of the best pieces of acting Driver ever done.
Despite what the title may suggest, this isn’t just a story about a marriage. It isn’t even a story about divorce. It’s much more complex and nuanced, suggesting that we must learn to live apart to find a true sense of self and understand what it truly means to be alive. Marriage Story succeeds in its ability to examine these ideas and get to the core of what makes them so universal.
The conversations Charlie and Nicole have are raw and honest, feeling as if they were ripped straight from the darkest parts of your mind — places that most would understandably want to stay away from. Bambach dares to sift through them, pick out the most heart-wrenching and explosive pieces, and turn them into something relatable, real, and genuinely affecting.
Marriage Story is a multi-dimensional film that matches its intensity with the thumping heart at its center. It’s a contemporary tragedy that isn’t about the death of a relationship and love, but the birth of a new, much healthier, more stable, and more reliable relationship, and the preservation of all of the qualities, good and bad, that, at the end of the day, make us human.