Relationships can be a scary thing - letting someone get to know all your best and worst qualities, to study you under the most detailed of microscopes, learning things about you that you might not have realised about yourself. The true risk, of course, is trusting that they won't weaponise that knowledge, having the ability throughout your time together to destroy you worse than anyone else could. It's having that power but loving each other enough to hopefully never use it.
This is obviously the mindset of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, 'Avengers: Endgame') and Charlie Barber (Adam Driver, 'Star Wars' series), whose progressively poisonous divorce is the focus of writer/director Noah Baumbach's new film, 'Marriage Story'. Admittedly, I was apprehensive about the early hype surrounding the film. Noah Baumbach's work is generally adored in the film community, yet with the exception of the excellent 'Mistress America', I have always found his work to be 'White People Problems: The Movie', over and over again. This isn't necessarily the worst subject matter, but the twee, self-important quality of his films always kept me from accessing them in a way so many others had. But 'Marriage Story' is an entirely new era of Baumbach, one that is both more him than ever but also feels unlike anything he has done before. And it is glorious.
Like Baumbach, who was inspired by his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicole and Charlie are an actress-director couple, a dynamic that has bred unresolved and unspoken resentment on both sides over time. Charlie, initially struggling to find an audience for his theatre company, struck gold in the star power of his new wife's acting career; however, over time this dynamic shifted, with Charlie's name being the driving force behind the company's popularity and Nicole subsequently losing her identity in her husband's work. 'Marriage Story' is a character study first and foremost, and obviously needed to be anchored by brilliant performances. Even with impressive work under their belts, this is without a doubt the best Johansson and Driver have been in years, possibly ever. Their raw and nuanced performances allow for a complete dynamic reversal; as the divorce progresses, Nicole becomes more liberated and animated. During her first meeting with camp LA lawyer Nora (a scene-stealing Laura Dern, TV's 'The Tale' & 'Big Little Lies'), I was surprised at just how performative Johansson's monologue was, but as the details unfold it becomes clear that after living in her husband's shadow, this is a woman finding her own voice for the first time; she is justifiably excited, finding words pouring out of her in a way they haven't for years.
Meanwhile, Charlie takes the much more conventional route through the five stages of grief, settling into each stage - denial is by far the longest, wearing his wedding ring much longer through the separation than Nicole does - while losing a bit of his dignity each time. By the time he is royally screwing up while having his relationship with his son assessed (one of the film's funniest and most horrifying scenes), Charlie is a man already defeated, numbed by his circumstances. It would be wrong to spoil the scene, but it involves an incredible metaphor for Charlie's temporary solutions to much more serious problems.
In fact, the symbolism in 'Marriage Story' is done excellently and primed for deep post-screening dissection. Whether it's a sliding gate with Nicole and Charlie on different sides, or a loud ticking clock while Charlie stresses over losing custody of their young son (Azhy Robertson), the film demands a maturity from its audience given its touchy subject matter, and rewards audiences with these little moments. Be sure to listen closely to the lyrics of a song Charlie belts in the film's final 20 minutes. It's a smart moment where a man so ruined by a divorce amplified by his own flaws and ego can only express his feelings without intense emotion when the words coming out of his mouth are someone else's.
This small moment of unintentional self-reflection on Charlie's part unfortunately speaks to my only problem with the film, and even though it's major, it's something I will be able to mostly ignore on a re-watch (and this film demands many). One of my major gripes with Baumbach's films is an unshakeable sense that, like Ari Aster, Baumbach is sitting behind each shot getting off on his own cleverness, and this has bled into his scripts to the point where I have actively eye-rolled through some of his filmography. The script for 'Marriage Story' is no exception to this, and despite how entertaining it is, Dern's monologue on the ridiculous (and very true) sentiments of men having it easier as parents just sounds like Baumbach sitting at his desk, patting his own back for how smart and woke the whole affair is. Just a few more moments of introspection would have done wonders; however, there are many moments that imagining the performances are mostly improv or, hell, that this is an actual divorce unfolding makes these moments feel much more organic. The fact that I had to do this doesn't derail the experience, but it is still unfortunate.
'Marriage Story' is an entirely new era of Noah Baumbach, one that is both more him than ever and also feels unlike anything he has done before.
It should come as no surprise that 'Marriage Story' is both heartbreaking and hard to watch in equal measure. Of course, Nicole and Charlie's initial insistence on no lawyers to keep their separation friendly fails almost immediately, and one of the most painful moments in the film is a bitter court meeting where Nicole and Charlie's lawyers pass the point of no return (as indicated by the aforementioned sliding gate a scene earlier). The lowest of blows are exchanged, every little flaw blown way out of proportion to spite the other, and this bleeds into the microaggressions Nicole and Charlie adopt (watch the venom spit from Charlie's mouth when he implicates Nicole in potentially endangering their son at any moment he can). The scene this film will go down in history for, however, is their climactic argument that makes Jesse and Celine's row in 'Before Midnight' look like child's play. This is the culmination of every ugly thought they have ever had about each other, freed by the poison let out in the courtroom. This is the reality of loving and knowing someone all too well; for anyone in a relationship, it is a nightmare.
I wish so badly I could separate the art from the artist, and this is the only reason I cannot give 'Marriage Story' the five stars it actually deserves. My own issues with Baumbach aside, however, and it's shocking to me that a film so simple can be so nearly flawless (I mean this technically too; the film is shot, edited, paced and scored beautifully). Despite how much I cried, it finds beauty and comedy in the tiniest of moments. It's an ugly portrait of two flawed people and therefore never easy to watch, but it is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had with a film in years. I just hope I never have to experience it myself.