Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Noah Baumbach's brash Marriage Story starts on a upbeat note. Nicole is staring in a Broadway-bound play directed by her husband, Charlie. As her face is illuminated in harsh theatrical lighting out of a dark stage, you start hearing Charlie fawn over all of her great qualities.
With home-movie-like footage playing in the backyard, you get the sense that she is a great caregiver who cuts Charlie's hair and takes Charlie and her son Henry on picnics. She is also a fine actress who gave up a promising film career to follow her husband, played by Adam Driver, to New York to fulfill his dreams. They are a partnership as much as a couple.
Charlie narrates this tale, and then Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) does the same, a moderator telling us that Charlie is the super-organized partner who closes drawers she leaves open, is more commanding and competitive, and handles Henry's tantrums like a master.
But then the camera pulls back for the big reveal: They are sitting in a divorce mediator's office, and he has asked them to write about the best qualities each holds. It is a setup to what becomes a complicated, deeply moving film about how divorce divides and changes the best of people, even those as likable as Nicole and Charlie. There is devastation, bitterness, rancor, greed, mortal wounding, jealousy and even hatred.
This from two people who love each other deeply, even while destroying their former lives. Divorce does that, it seems, when there are children involved.
The film does this without resorting to showy flashbacks or much in the way of exposition on why this couple doesn't work any longer; it just happens. On the surface, Johansson's character is caged by Charlie's insistence that she stay in New York while a grander career beckons out west. She feels he doesn't see her anymore. Driver's character is driven, working long hours to see his play succeed, and has become a bigger name on the Great White Way than Nicole. He fools around with a stage hand after Nicole decides to sleep on the couch. It has become a marriage of inconvenience.
Suffice to say that plot is just getting started weaving its cross-webs. A teary Johansson is taken in by a man-eating female lawyer, played by Laura Dern in a role that needs the rocket fuel she can provide. Driver, knocked off his perch, resorts to a high-pressure attorney played by Ray Liotta who continually demands attention while making Driver a source of derision. As Dern's attorney says upon seeing Liotta, it is time for a catfight.
One of the film's genius moves is to have its characters shift shapes midway through the film. Johannson is no longer the timid wife who has second throughts about leaving Driver and taking Henry from his father; she now shows the steeliness of iron wool in refusing to allow Driver to take Henry back to New York. Driver is weakened, a hard-charging director now shaken and unsure of his footing. The roles have flipped.
Throughout all the recriminations and accusations, they still love each other. There are no bad people in a divorce, only a bad process. In a major scene late in the film, Charlie and Nicole meet alone for the first time in months, wanting desperately to drop the daggers and make some amends. But while Baumbach brilliantly moves from reaction shot to reaction shot in a fast-paced two-camera setup, the pair end up fighting, both vocally and physically, with Driver telling his soon-to-be ex that he now hate her. He then breaks down in tears, huddle in a ball of pain.
Baumbach has gone over similar turf before, starting with his early film, The Squid and The Whale, where Jeff Daniels plays an abusive husband who needs escaping. In all his films, his characters fight inner chaos while having to maintain their cool outer surface. What keeps these films from falling over in a sea of wallowing is Baumbach's light touch, his humor and cultural references.
Here, you have Driver directing "Electra," a play from Sophocles about a wife arranging the murder of her husband, King Agamemnon, as he return home from the long Trojan War. He has no chance against a wife wanting revenge. And you have Driver singing Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive," an ironic end tune from "Company" that talks of a wife driving her husband to hell and back but giving him life at the same time.
A lot of ink has been spilled on the decision to give this film a limited theatrical release before Netflix, a producer of the movie, showed it on its streaming platform. I'd only say that the movie works well in the comfort of home, where there is time to contemplate and discuss with a significant other. It is that important.