Noah Baumbach’s powerful portrait of a couple falling out of love manages the tricky feat of delivering wonderful levity and immense sadness in almost equal measure.
Marriage Story follows the divorce of theatre director Charlie and his actor wife Nicole, played impeccably by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. The film starts out with the two characters listing what they love about the other, giving us a glimpse into the happier times they experienced before things turned sour.
The pair start the process of divorce on reasonably amicable terms. What follows however demonstrates how even the friendliest of divorces can soon escalate and how traumatic the result can be for all involved; especially when there is also a child in the mix.
The central duo are both laid bare, warts and all. Both are clearly loving parents and deep down want the best for their young son. However, pent up frustrations and old grudges soon come to the fore. One particularity memorable confrontation set in Charlie’s LA apartment is one of the most devastating moments in the movie as the hatred and anger that the process has drawn out of the pair bubbles inexorably to the surface.
The film isn’t all tears and tantrums though. There’s a humour running through the story thanks to Baumbach’s witty screenplay in which he embraces the eccentricities of the central pair, as well as the supporting cast around them, to tremendous effect. Little touches like Charlie’s unwavering close relationship with Nicole’s mother (an excellent Julie Hegerty) are an absolute joy.
Both Johansson and Driver give exceptionally heartfelt and vulnerable performances throughout. Driver captures the flawed genius side to his character perfectly, giving us a man who is talented and well-meaning but nevertheless also incredibly self-centred.
Johansson’s Nicole meanwhile is a patient and hard working woman, who tries her best to accommodate Charlie’s manner but reaches an understandable breaking point. She is determined to not live in her partner’s shadow and desperately yearns to carve out her own niche in the world.
Baumbach manages to avoid apportioning any blame too directly and the film doesn’t definitively pick sides. Instead it presents the facts and lets you take it all in as a whole. Both characters are flawed, but also both deeply sympathetic.
The supporting cast are all brilliant too with Ray Liotta and Laura Dern standing out as the rival lawyers who both adopt very different tactics as they attempt wrestle control of the divorce away from the other side.
There’s hints of screwball comedy worked into the mix, such as the sequence involving the simple act of serving divorce papers, as well as definite Woody Allen-esque flourishes sprinkled throughout. However it also feels like a distinctly Noah Baumbach movie, warm and tender, but also incredibly raw and honest.