In 2005, Noah Baumbach wrote and directed The Squid and the Whale, a movie that dug deep into what it feels like to be a kid in a family that's pulled itself past its breaking point. The specifics of The Squid and the Whale were the opposite of universal—not many kids dealing with divorce live in a bougie Park Slope brownstone with a professor father and a writer mom—but Baumbach captured the emotions that riot at the core of a divorce so accurately, so sharply, that it was impossible not to feel like the movie like a punch to the gut.
Almost 15 years later—and after making Frances Ha, Greenberg, The Meyerowitz Stories, and more—Baumbach's written and directed Marriage Story, a movie that digs deep into what it feels like to be a husband and a wife in a family that's pulling itself past its breaking point. Again, the specifics are aggressively upper class: Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is a big-deal actress, Charlie (Adam Driver) is an acclaimed theater director, and along with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), they spend much of Marriage Story at either a bougie apartment in Manhattan or a bougie house in West Hollywood. But once again, Baumbach—within the film's opening seconds, even—drills down to unearth the singular combination of grief, fury, melancholy, and pain that can only come from divorce.
Like The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story hits hard—not just in its big, loud scenes of conflict and strife, but in its smaller, softer moments: The cast-iron edge behind Nicole's words as she works to keep her voice from breaking; Charlie's too-practiced posture; the way Nicole's aggressively upbeat mother (Julie Hagerty) can't help but hug Charlie; the weary, okay-let's-give-it-a-go gumption of Charlie and Nicole's already frustrated mediator (Robert Smigel) as he asks the two of them to read aloud the lists he's had them make—the lists that count all the reasons they love each other.
Marriage Story feels brutally true in another respect: Both Charlie and Nicole feel real. Much of that's due to Driver and Johansson, who are even better in these roles than you're expecting, but just as much is due to the way Baumbach captures both Nicole and Charlie not as characters but as whole people who are full of clashing desires and feelings. Charlie fucks up, and so does Nicole; Nicole desperately wants this whole ugly process to go as easily as possible, and so does Charlie; Charlie loves Henry, and so does Nicole; Nicole's sure that the way she wants things to work out is the only sensible way, while Charlie, on the other hand, is pretty sure that the way he wants things to work out is the only sensible way. A bunch of people are stuck in the middle—Nicole's mom, the grown-up theater kids of Charlie's theater company, and a slew of divorce lawyers (played, with jarring perfection, by Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta) who range from viciously sharky to affably shruggy. Throughout, Henry bounces between Nicole and Charlie and back again—not a prize, and not a burden, but a tiny person trapped in an impossibly complicated situation.
This review has made Marriage Story sound very DOOM and GLOOM so far, which, oh yes, it is, but it's also funnier than expected. Part of why these characters, and the long timespan Marriage Story covers, seem so true-to-life are moments of genuine and unexpected absurdity that're as much a part of divorce as anything else. (Then again, not all divorces feature an event as hilarious and/or horrifying as the part of Marriage Story that I will only refer to as "The Scene with the Knife," which is probably for the best.) Like the hurt, Baumbach captures the humor with a light touch, thanks to subtle cuts, an open frame that hangs close to Driver and Johansson's faces, and an elegiac score by Randy Newman.
But back to them jokes! There aren't punchlines in Marriage Story, but there are moments of light and mirth—quick glimpses that remind Nicole and Charlie, and us, why it's ostensibly worth going through all this misery.
Which, I suppose, is as good of a way to describe divorce as any: A horrible, exhausting, life-altering thing that tears down and tears apart even the best of us, leaving behind collateral damage and wounds that will never close. But it's also a process that, in theory at least, offers something better—or at least not as awful!—on the other side. What makes Marriage Story so remarkable isn't just how deeply Baumbach, Driver, and Johansson care about these characters, but how effectively the movie captures something that's impossible to put into words: The feeling of life as it changes, and the feeling of stories as they come to an end.
Marriage Story is now playing at Cinema 21 and streaming on Netflix.