How does a small tale of love found and lost emerge as a major triumph and one of the very best movies of the year? Marriage Story is more than just a career high for writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories, The Squid and the Whale); it’s a peerless showcase for its stars, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who turn this tale of a contentious divorce into a Kramer vs. Kramer for the 21st century.
Driver is Charlie, a much praised Off-Broadway theater director who can’t direct himself out of a crisis. Johansson is Nicole, his wife of 10 years and the mother of their eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). She wants to stop acting in Charlie’s plays and move to Los Angeles for pilot season. The born-and-bred New Yorker sniffs at both L.A. and TV, so Nicole pushes for a separation.
In the deceptively lighthearted opening scene, the spouses both make lists — a staple of marriage counseling — about why they love each other. Says Charlie over a montage of seeming domestic bliss: “She’s infectious, competitive, a great dancer, a mother who really plays.” And then the M word: me. (“She knows when to push me and when to leave me alone.”) Nicole’s list about Charlie also includes “competitive” and how he’s “a great dresser who cries easily at movies and loves being a dad, almost annoying how much he likes it…he takes all my moods steadily and doesn’t make me feel bad about them.” Charlie’s infidelity and Nicole’s resentment don’t make the list.
Both agree that they need to talk but don’t know how to start. That’s the movie’s job and Baumbach, whose skills as a screenwriter have rarely been this acutely hilarious and heartfelt, straps in Charlie, Nicole and the audience for an emotional rollercoaster ride that climbs and plunges from bursts of laughter to sudden tears. The decision to split brings out the worst in both of these characters. In L.A., Nicole leans on her Charlie-adoring actress mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Wever) to help her serve Charlie with divorce papers. It’s funny until Charlie finds out he’ll need to establish a California residence if he hopes to share custody of Henry.
Enter the lawyers. Charlie has two of them, a minnow (Alan Alda, wonderful) who urges the gentle approach, and a shark (an electric Ray Liotta) who does the opposite. One guess who finally gets the job. Nicole hires take-no-prisoners legal advocate Nora Fanshaw, played by the sensational Laura Dern with a delicious blend of mirth and malice that should make her a leading contender for Best Supporting Actress.
It’s been reported that Baumbach used his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh as an inspirational spark for this story of a union rent asunder, but the movie hits home for anyone who’s been put through the breakup ringer either directly or as collateral damage. His directorial choices are unerring, from the potent camerawork of Robbie Ryan and the incisive editing of Jennifer Lame to the grace notes that permeate Randy Newman’s score.
Still, Marriage Story lives and breathes through its superlative actors. As Henry, the son caught between the parents he knows and the legal system he doesn’t, young Azhy Robertson offers a touching portrait of a confused child whose hurt is tempered by a hard-won resilience. Johansson, temporarily liberated for the MCU (her solo Black Widow movie is out in March), reminds us that the dramatic heights she scaled in Ghost World, Lost in Translation, Match Point and Under the Skin are still accessible and ready to rip. She has never been better or more emotionally expressive than she is as Nicole.
Above all, this is Driver’s shining two hours, ranking him with the finest actors of his generation. The former Marine that kids revere as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars universe is also the incendiary artist who’s been killing it on TV (Girls), stage (the recent Broadway revival of Burn This) and screen (BlacKkKlansmen, Silence). Marriage Story is a jaw-dropping demonstration of Driver’s power, subtlety and range. His award-caliber performance will be talked about for years, and we don’t need Oscar to certify it, though can blame the Academy if they do.
There’s an indelible moment when Charlie simply sings — yes, Driver can do that beautifully as well — Stephen Sondheim’s heart-crushing “Being Alive,” with lyrics that speak to the kind of need in love that sticks even when both parties have moved on: “Somebody hold me too close/Somebody hurt me too deep/Somebody sit in my chair/And ruin my sleep/And make me aware/Of being alive.” Driver, Johansson and Baumbach bring you to your knees through the hard truths and aching empathy they express to deliver the true meaning of being alive. It’s the kind of movie that will take a piece out of you.