As Charlie (Adam Driver) and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) swap notes on what they admire most about each other during the opening moments of Marriage Story, the sweet tone confirms this will be a film rooted deep with compassion and sentiment. Not long after the two recite their lists however – he mentioning his adoration for her dancing, she how he actually likes the more mundane tasks of fatherhood – the film throws us for an emotional loop as we learn these lists are not an act of endearment, but an assignment from their mediator assisting them with their impending divorce.
There’s nothing particularly new within the canon of “broken relationship features” here (Kramer vs. Kramer, The War of the Roses, and The Story of Us have all tackled the pain and sometimes absurd nature of divorce in their own manner) but writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha), bringing his staple brand of talky-intelligence and humour to proceedings, somehow exerts a sense of freshness. And it’s not just because he has a duo of career-best performances centring the film (Driver and Johansson are uniformly perfect) but the entire ensemble populating Marriage Story act as a sort-of masterclass in how to distribute your ingredients with an unmatched equality.
On the surface the New York-based Charlie and Nicole appear to have it made. Apart from the adoration they once held for each other, his theatre troupe – in which she is the centre of their acclaimed performances – has lauded him with praise, and will soon be taking him to Broadway. Nicole, however, is dissatisfied with their life, upset at the resentment she harbours for him due to her sacrificing a film career to tend to his ego; Los Angeles, where she grew up, and where the two were coincidentally married, ends up acting as a key ingredient in their eventual separation.
L.A. serving as both Nicole’s home-town and something of a necessary figure in Charlie’s hopeful custody agreement allows Baumbach to indulge his comedic senses, peppering the script with light vocal gags (“You can’t beat the space” becomes a running joke throughout) as well as allowing Nicole’s show-business family to blindly shine; the flawless timing from Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Nicole’s respective mother and sister highlighted in one particular scene offers a glorious reprieve from the more somber material that follows, with Baumbach managing to extract jocular gold from the simplest act of serving divorce papers.
Whilst the somber material that comes hits the emotional notes one would expect – there’s a fight scene between the two that is quite possibly the most organic argument ever expressed on-screen – Baumbach is never far off from adopting a classic screwball comedy temperament, which is reflected in the initial scenes of Charlie and Nicole hiring their respective legal representatives. Charlie, having been barred from most of L.A.’s attorneys due to Nicole shopping around for counsel, first employs the kind-hearted Bert Spitz (a dear Alan Alda), only to eventually settle on the more cut-throat Jay (Ray Liotta, firing on all cylinders), a shark all-too readily equipped to go toe-to-toe with Nicole’s hire, Nora (Laura Dern, essentially acting as her character from Big Little Lies, just with a little more restraint).
Hilarity soon disintegrates to heartbreak though as both Jay and Nora pick apart Nicole and Charlie in the hopes of uncovering their worst habits to better their own situation. As weaponised as they are though, Baumbach continues to strive to showcase the best of the parting couple, with the simplest of glances or a mood-breaking laugh indicating that these are two people that still like each other at the end of the day. There’s a humanism present that keeps the film relatable on a general level, ensuring that even if you haven’t experienced such relationship hardships, you’ll find a sense of understanding among the frustrating chaos that is ending a marriage.
A film that’s as equally honest and transparent, and as bitter and witty as the performances at its core, Marriage Story manages to maintain a sense of surprise and affection throughout, enough so that you’ll forget this is a narrative trope you’ve experienced before.
Marriage Story is playing in select Australian theatres from November 14th before streaming exclusively on Netflix from December 6th 2019.