Divorce, Baumbach Style
The Brutally Confessional ‘Marriage Story’ Makes for Transcendent Cinema
So you’re getting a divorce. If you’re lucky, you really hate each other. Contempt cauterizes. But what happens when you still care? Noah Baumbach found out the hard way as his marriage to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh fell apart. A child of divorce, the self-probing filmmaker used his kid’s-eye view of a parental breakup as gut-punch fodder for his previous high-water mark, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. And now his own conscious uncoupling is the inspiration for his inarguable masterpiece, Marriage Story. As an exquisitely vivid dissection of a couple’s turbulent dissolution, the relationship drama is remarkable storytelling. As an example of how brutally candid screenwriting and painfully empathetic performances can transform cinema, it’s absolutely transcendent.
MARRIAGE STORY ★★★★★(5/5 stars)
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty
Running time: 136 min
Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is a young but crested Hollywood starlet who let her career drift to support her husband, the more-respected-than-successful East Coast stage director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver). For the better part of a decade, the couple have lived in New York and raised their eight-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) while Nicole was a de facto part of Charlie’s theater troupe. “I got smaller,” Nicole confides to matrimonial lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) when she finally vocalizes her deep melancholy over the situation. Nora, naturally and maybe a bit too eagerly, offers to help. “I don’t want to be too aggressive,” she tells Nicole. “We’ll do it as gently as possible.” Sure you will. And so begins the end.
“We’re a New York family,” Charlie keeps telling himself as his wife outmaneuvers him at every turn. Nicole has first-mover advantage, and sure moves quickly. She’s from Los Angeles and files for divorce in Los Angeles, then moves back in with her mother (Julie Hagerty), lands a role in an upcoming CGI-heavy project, and enrolls Henry in school. “We all still live in New York,” says Charlie, pleadingly. Not anymore.
Charlie needs to prove he can provide, that’s he’s not a deadbeat, that he can go toe-to-toe in this tussle. But that high-priced Angeleno law firm charges $950/hr and requires a $25,000 retainer. The strip-mall alternative charges half that, but you get what you pay for. And so begins the torturous byzantine strategizing, some of which demands deliberate distortion. Is your husband violent? Is your wife prone to alcoholism? How self-destructive are they both? Any hairline fracture in that model-parent façade is a weakness to exploit, and civil negotiation can quickly devolve into the scorched-earth mentality of winner-take-all.
Marriage Story measures the mechanics of modern divorce in all its tragic, maddening, beleaguered dimensions. But Baumbach miraculously keeps his sympathies so balanced, which really makes the film soar. There are no villains here. Only victims. Divorce is inherently tragic, especially when good people are trying their best not to be bad. Allegiances shift as the plot unfolds, cruelty pops up unexpectedly, and anger strips down civility, leaving only the unvarnished and ultimately cathartic truth.
Love bears so many contradictions because love is irrational, demanding contortions and delusions to embody a greater truth. It enriches what it enfeebles. It liberates what it enslaves. It’s pain that’s bliss. And, as Charlie rhapsodizes at the end with Stephen Sondheim’s “Someone,” it’s even more fundamental than all that: it’s being alive.