Director: Noah Baumbach
Talent: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver. Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta
Release: 15 November
“I realized, I never really come alive by myself. I was just feeding his aliveness”
Nicole (Scarlet Johansson) reflects on a divorce from Charlie (Adam Driver) in Noah Baumbach’s most substantial work yet.
We open on married couple, Nicole and Charlie Barber, enumerating everything they love about each other over a montage of daily domestic moments. But this is no twee romance story, for they are on the cusp of getting divorced. They’ve written this cutesy list at the behest of a mediator helping them initiate divorce proceedings.
Charlie Barber is a meticulous stage director running a theatre company in New York, where Nicole is leading actor in many productions. Still, she has become tired of always playing second fiddle to Charlie’s unwavering ambitions. Initially, they decide to keep things amicable, seemingly happy to keep things split down the middle. That’s until Nicole takes their son Henry back to LA, and starts shooting a pilot. Charlie has always put off the idea of returning to LA, and now it’s going to be major sticking point in their divorce.
Already accomplished actors, both Driver and Johansson do their best work here. Driver plays Charlie as finicky and self-absorbed, but ultimately kind-hearted and respectful. He is very likely a proxy for Baumbach. Admittedly, the film probably favours the male perspective, or at least renders Charlie’s perspective more sympathetic, his plight seeming more soulful. That said, any tendentiousness is hardly intentional, with strong efforts made to understand the complexity of Nicole’s predicament too.
Flirting with being more aggressive and assertive, Nicole is haunted by her ambivalence. In one staggering scene, we see Johansson giving clipped responses, smiling thinly at Charlie before leaving the room and breaking down, no longer able to maintain this pretence of coldness. Both characters are flawed, but are essentially good people, and what they are about to go through is going to bring out the worst in them.
Dazzling work also comes from the supporting players. Baumbach is fantastic with an ensemble cast. Laura Dern is sublime as an acquisitive lawyer, like a praying mantis. Alan Alda is hilarious as a rumpled, honest-to-goodness lawyer that is idealistic enough to believe in the truth as the guiding light in divorce cases – “You remind me of me after my second divorce,” he says paternally to Charlie.
Despite the subject matter sounding glum on paper, this film is funnier than most comedies. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t fizzle, but the humour feels embedded in real tangible world, unlike some of Baumbach’s more airless work. And just like in real life, some of the funniest moments come in the wake of real heartbreak. The comedy/drama ratio is so perfectly calibrated that this film never becomes a drag, even when it’s charting some very raw emotional terrain – one particular confrontation between the couple becomes gut-wrenchingly caustic.
The suspense here isn’t about whether they will get back together or not, but rather whether they’ll be able to retain the goodwill and affection they still feel for each other while under the auspices of their grasping, viper lawyers. We are rooting for a relationship that’s already over to win the day, hoping to see glimmers of what made this relationship work.
This is Baumbach’s most substantial work yet; he is his generation’s Woody Allen. He was always a talented comedy writer, but like Allen with Annie Hall, Marriage Story marks a turning point, which sees him move beyond mere self-referential navel-gazing to something deeper. Though Baumbach is drawing from his own divorce to Jennifer Jason Leigh, he succeeds in making this universal while remaining true to the specificity of the characters he clearly loves.
Words: Rory Kiberd
Illustration: Dermot Flynn