This divorce drama from writer/director Noah Baumbach, something of a modern take on Kramer vs. Kramer, may not re-invent the wheel but offers an honest, heartfelt, sad and funny look at a failed relationship and its painful aftermath. Moral of the story: if you want an amicable divorce, stay the hell away from the lawyers.
It begins in a deceptively adorable manner, with Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) each reciting a long list of everything they love about each other, full of small intimate details that only true partners would know. Just when it all couldn’t get more heartwarming, the movie pulls the rug: Nicole and Charlie’s lists are a part of their counselling session as they go through a divorce, and they don’t even get to read them out loud to each other because Nicole, for reasons yet unknown, doesn’t want to share hers. This failure in communication is just a tiny peek into the problems behind their split, and before the movie is over their relationship will undergo a full autopsy.
Complicating matters further is the geographical distance. Charlie is a brilliant theatrical director making a name for himself in New York, Nicole is a one-time L.A. film actress who moved coasts to be with her husband and lend some initial star quality to his stage productions. An offer of a TV pilot takes Nicole back home to Los Angeles and she takes the couple’s eight-year-old son Henry with her. In Charlie’s head however, they’re still and always will be a New York family. Both adore their son and want nothing more than an amicable divorce, but these good intentions don’t last. Without ever really planning to, Nicole ends up hiring tough-as-nails L.A. attorney Nora (scene-stealing Laura Dern in a delicious performance that reminded me of her high-octane turn in Big Little Lies). Charlie, completely baffled and disoriented, has no choice but to find his own crazy expensive lawyer, and it all spirals downward into horrible legal wrangling.
As always with a film like Marriage Story, whether you think that the film favours Nicole or Charlie is bound to be a highly personal reading. For me, the big strength of the movie is its brilliant balancing act; I didn’t think there was one single wrong party throughout as it veered in different directions and presented different points of view. Nicole gets to put her perspective forward first in a powerful monologue scene where she pours out her pent-up frustrations at Nora, and Charlie does absolutely nothing to disprove her accusations of ignoring his wife’s needs and opinions and being a major control freak. One really feels that any attempt by Nicole to address this would hit a brick wall. But she’s also the one who makes the first crucial mistake by involving the lawyers, and it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Charlie as he’s forced off his home turf to contend with California laws (Baumbach being New York-based there are a lot of digs at Los Angeles and the endless mentions of “the space” as its main selling point). It’s also not as simple as Nicole and Charlie ceasing to care for each other, as demonstrated by an affecting scene where Nicole offers to cut Charlie’s hair for him like she’s always done.
At first Charlie hires a more touchy-feely attorney fond of meandering anecdotes (Alan Alda), but his eventual choice is a suited bulldog (played by Ray Liotta) who can match Nora nasty for nasty in court. And man does it get nasty, as everything Charlie and Nicole ever did wrong as partners and parents gets aired out and magnified by their lawyers while the two exes squirm uncomfortably. That’s still nothing though compared to the couple’s searing rage-fuelled climactic confrontation that’s bound to be remembered as the movie’s defining scene and has already inspired a host of internet memes. The cruel things Charlie and Nicole hurl at each other could shrivel ears.
Despite all this marital doom and gloom, the film ultimately has an optimistic view on the people’s ability to grow and change. It’s also quite funny and moves with the energy of a rom-com (except in the opposite direction I guess). The supporting cast is stellar; apart from the above-mentioned bunch of lawyers Nicole’s mother and sister offer a nice comical touch. Johansson and Driver do some of their finest work here; it’s especially gratifying to see the former sink her teeth into real meaty material away from the blockbuster fare. Driver was excellent as the entitled punch-worthy hipster in Baumbach’s While We’re Young, but this role gives him an opportunity to display his full dramatic range (including an unexpected bit of singing in a crucial and moving character scene – I like surprises like that).