“Marriage Story” is the Noah Baumbach movie we’ve been waiting for. It’s better than good; it’s more than just accomplished. After 10 features, released over a quarter century of filmmaking (his debut, “Kicking and Screaming,” came out in 1995; his other films include “The Squid and the Whale,” “Greenberg,” and “Frances Ha”), this, at long last, is Baumbach’s breakthrough into the dramatic stratosphere. At once funny, scalding, and stirring, built around two bravura performances of incredible sharpness and humanity, it’s the work of a major film artist, one who shows that he can capture life in all its emotional detail and complexity — and, in the process, make a piercing statement about how our society now works.
The movie is a drama of divorce, and when it’s over you may feel like you know the lives it’s about as well as you know your own. Yet “Marriage Story” isn’t just the tale of a marital breakdown and its aftermath. It’s a film about divorce: how it operates, what it means, its larger consequences. Television periodically confronts this kind of thing (on “Big Little Lies,” say), but if you’re wondering when it was that a movie last dealt with the subject of separation on such a big-picture scale, you might have to go back 40 years — to the era of “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Scenes from a Marriage,” and “Shoot the Moon.” “Marriage Story” makes a worthy addition to that canon, though so much has changed. Divorce was commonplace back then, but this is the first film set inside what might be called the divorce-industrial complex. It’s about two people coming to terms with a process that, however necessary, is more wounding at times than their heartbreak.
As the movie opens, we hear the voices of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), who’ve been married for 10 years and have an 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). As the two take turns describing what each one cherishes about the other, their lists are accompanied by a montage of moments from their domestic life, which are staged with such resonantly casual detail — the way Charlie brushes the hair off his nose as Nicole gives him a bathroom scissor cut; the way she leaves her Zabar’s and Pink Freud mugs standing around with teabags in them; his face-stuffing; her jar-opening; the family’s hyper-competitive Monopoly games — that though we don’t even know these characters yet, you grin with recognition. The montage tells us something vital (that Charlie and Nicole have never stopped loving each other), and it therefore raises a question: Why are they getting divorced? Couldn’t they work it out?
It’s Nicole who has instigated the split. She’s an actress, raised in Los Angeles, who had an indie It Girl moment (she starred in a sexy hip romance called “All Over the Girl”), and then, after falling in love with Charlie, moved to New York to marry him and become the star of his downtown experimental theater company. They were in their twenties, gifted and successful, and once their son was born they created a nice life in Park Slope. As far as Charlie is concerned, he’s living the dream. But Nicole had periodic stirrings about relocating to L.A., which Charlie “discussed” but never took seriously. That’s because he’s a New York guy. Besides, his troupe is based in New York, and he directs the shows, including an “Electra” that’s headed to Broadway. How could they possibly move?
Nicole, however, now has the chance to star in a TV pilot that could lead to a series. And what she realizes is that though she loves her family, she has spent the marriage living Charlie’s dream, putting hers on perpetual hold. There are ways to solve this kind of conflict, of course; that’s what the growing pains of a good marriage are about. But Baumbach has captured how taste, personality, and ego can add up to one stubborn road block. There’s a telling moment when Charlie, the avant-garde dynamo, reminds Nicole that he doesn’t watch television, as the film flashes over to a glimpse of the “cool” horror movie he’s watching instead. This is the sort of male credibility distinction that means everything and nothing — but in this case, it means more than Charlie knows, since his dismissal of “television” includes a kneejerk diminishment of the centrality of Nicole’s career.
It’s the old New York-vs.-L.A. values debate, the one mythologized in “Annie Hall,” only the way this plays out in “Marriage Story” is far more lacerating. Nicole, convinced that Charlie loves everything about her except for the yearnings that challenge his, heads to L.A. to shoot her pilot. She takes Henry, crashing at the home of her mother, Sandra (Julie Hagerty), a former TV actress herself. There’s no debate about whether the divorce is happening; it’s on.
But here’s where the drama begins. Charlie still doesn’t get it. He accepts that his marriage is over, and he and Nicole, who are not wealthy (he funnels the money they make back into the theater company), agree not to get into a war over dividing the spoils. All well and good. But Charlie still thinks they’re “a New York family.” He’s not a bad guy, but he’s so innocently self-directed that even in divorce, he thinks he’s going to have a version of the life he had before. They’ll live a few blocks from each other and share custody of Henry!
But that, of course, isn’t the way it works. Divorces are infamous for monetary blood feuds, but what happens when you have a kid, and one parent wants to live across the country? How do you divide that? Charlie trails Nicole out to L.A., and what he learns, as soon as she hires the celebrity divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), is that there’s the life he was living, and there’s divorce world, in which appearance becomes reality, the court system isn’t listening to the nuances of your desires, and the lawyers charge such bankrupting fees that as soon as you’ve entered the battle you’ve lost the war.
At least, that’s how Charlie sees it. All he’s trying to do is maintain his connection to his son, and he feels like a criminal. (The fact that Henry likes L.A., along with trendy L.A. things like sock pants, didn’t figure into Charlie’s plans.) There are two sides to every divorce, and in “Marriage Story” Baumbach divides our sympathies in a most ingenious way. More than half of the 2-hour-and-16-minute drama is told from Charlie’s point of view, so it seems as if the divorce is all happening to him. And since Adam Driver is an intensely sympathetic actor, we can feel, as Charlie gets buried under circumstances beyond his control, that we’re “on his side.”
But Baumbach peels back the truth of this marriage, layer by layer. And we start to see that Charlie, for all his affection and intelligence, doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. The scene in which Johansson’s Nicole relates the story of their marriage to her lawyer is a blistering tour de force. The action she has taken may be brutal, but it’s right for her. This is a movie about New York vs. L.A. that’s really about the battle between the 20th-century cult of the Creative Dude and the 21st-century reality that women have many more choices than they once did.
It’s also about how the system of divorce, as it now operates, can be one big messed-up s—t show. Charlie learns that he’s not allowed to hire a lawyer his wife has consulted with even once (and she went to a ton of them). He learns that the court will expect him to have a home in L.A. (lest he seem like a visiting derelict), but that once he rents an apartment there it just increases the case for saying that they’re an L.A.-based family. (Talk about damned if you do…) He finds a schlubby family lawyer (Alan Alda), who basically tells him to cut his losses, then hires his own $950-an-hour attack-dog attorney (Ray Liotta). When Liotta’s raspy bulldog and Dern’s righteous legal Valkyrie face off in court, we hear the raw facts of the couple’s lives twisted into the most warped shapes.
Yet one of the powerful subtleties of “Marriage Story” is that the divorce process, flawed as it is, becomes the vehicle through which Charlie and Nicole confront the underlying reality of their marriage. They go to court, and tear up their lives, all to solve a problem that Charlie, if he was a different sort of man, could have solved in two minutes.
Baumbach’s brilliant screenplay never falters or hits a wrong note. He has come up with smart, witty, saddened, and searching characters whose ability to articulate their feelings is never less than lifelike, and he writes scenes that are like verbal arias. When Nicole shows up at the generic apartment Charlie has rented, the two try to “work things out,” but as they descend into a zone of raw accusation (You’re a slob! You’re a dictator! You used me to further your career! You slept with that stage manager!), the dialogue is like Bergman in media-age overdrive, and Johansson and Driver deliver it in such a fiercely connected fit of anger that the scene wounds, enthralls, and moves you to tears.
The supporting actors, in their way, are every as memorable, from Dern’s iron-clawed feminist crusader (her speech about why there will always be different expectations of mothers and fathers is a ripsnorting classic) to Liotta’s beady-eyed straight-shooter to Mary Hollis Inboden’s scene-stealing performance as a family-court evaluator who is such a disaffected space case that the moment she walks in the door to judge Charlie’s fitness as a father, she stands in for everything that’s inadequate about the divorce process. (She gets to top off the film’s most delicious running joke, which is that everyone — even an evaluator weighing in on a custody hearing about where Henry should live — reflexively recommends L.A. for “the space.”)
Late in the film, there are two scenes built around Stephen Sondheim songs from the great 1970 musical “Company.” “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is performed by Nicole and her mother and sister at a party, while Charlie does a rendition of “Being Alive” in a piano bar after work. They add up to a haunting yin-and-yang of male and female perception. Driver’s wistful performance of “Being Alive” could almost stand in for anyone’s view of marriage. Yet marriage, though it can feel to those of us who cherish it like the difference between being alive and being nowhere, isn’t always enough. “Marriage Story” captures that truth with such an exquisite combination of love and heartbreak that it leaves you chastened and enraptured.