In 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, writer-director Noah Baumbach concentrated on Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline), the children of divorcing parents. Returning to the subject of divorce 14 years later, Baumbach turns his camera on the adults. Marriage Story, like some divorces, is the manifestation of the swelling rage and lingering affection between two people who once shared every intimacy.
The floundering marriage between Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) comes to an end when Nicole, a theater actress and former up-and-coming movie star, receives an offer to film a television pilot in Los Angeles. Throughout their marriage, Nicole repeatedly pleaded with Charlie to return to her hometown of Los Angeles, but Charlie, a theater director, ignored her in favor of his own career. The added distance for the couple, based in New York for the duration of their marriage, marks the death knell for an increasingly unsalvageable relationship.
The divorce proceedings and custody battle for the pair’s young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), intensify as Nicole hires fierce divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Charlie is forced to take meetings with multiple divorce attorneys of his own, including the genial Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) and expensive, ruthless Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) and his partner Ted (Kyle Bornheimer). Nicole and Charlie must navigate their split while creating two separate, amenable homes for their son.
The movie opens with Charlie and Nicole in mediation, where they’ve been asked to compose letters listing what they love about one another. The exercise can’t save the marriage; Nicole refuses to read her letter aloud because she is committed to leaving Charlie. The letters go unheard, but their inclusion is a signal that Marriage Story is not a war between sworn enemies, but an elegy for a 10-year partnership.
In phone calls, legal proceedings, and vicious arguments between the pair, failure is omnipresent. The perspectives shift, but the failure remains. Charlie is self-absorbed and unfaithful, too career-driven and selfish to seriously consider Nicole’s feelings or desires. Nicole is deferential and taciturn, blaming Charlie for her failure to develop a sense of self or advocate on her own behalf. Nicole has been a bad wife and Charlie a poor, cheating husband, but that does not expunge their history as supportive spouses, encouraging, patient parents, or caring lovers.
The business of ending a marriage in the eyes of the law is messy and imprecise, like tearing unperforated paper. When Nicole hires Nora and relocates Henry, the complexities and expenses double. The divorce attorney earns Nicole’s trust in their initial meeting by performing a cynical, rehearsed ritual. Nora listens to Nicole’s side of the story, like a friend and confidant might, complete with a box of tissues and bare feet resting on a couch in her office.
“Before this is all over, you’re going to hate me and Ted, just because of what we represent in your life,” Jay remarks after meeting Charlie. “I’m sure you’re right,” comes the accepting response. Later, Baumbach jabs at the vulturous nature of the business when a decade-long relationship is reduced to an alphanumeric case number with a shot of the family’s file folder seated beside Nora.
The tug of war between New York and Los Angeles strains Charlie, Nicole, and Henry. The tension of the legal clash transforms amicable exes into vile, reproachable adversaries. Small betrayals, starting with public revelations of information originally shared in confidence, fracture bonds the couple formed years before. For the couple, testing—but not breaking—those bonds is paramount to making amends and moving forward, regardless of who wins and loses.
The melodrama allows Driver and Johansson to display an atypical range not seen in contemporary film. Johansson explores comedic timing with her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Wever), stews in animosity, and anguishes over her circumstances. Driver explodes at Johansson, sings contemplatively, and embodies a subtle sorrow. Dern, an early favorite for Best Supporting Actress, plays against type and devours a calamitous role.
Old-school, ‘70s-inspired transitions distract from the colossal emotions on screen. Although Baumbach makes a handful of stylistic choices that mar an exemplary screenplay, The Favourite cinematographer Robbie Ryan constructs a shot list that evolves with characters. Dingy offices and grand Los Angeles boulevards alike correspond with character feelings. Expert composer Randy Newman, collaborating with Baumbach for the second time (2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories), arranges a versatile, string- and piano-laden score capable of capturing the playful, ardent, and poignant.
Divorce, like death, is about moving on and finding yourself anew. In Marriage Story, Baumbach’s finest work to date, establishing blame pales in important to rebounding from the fallout.