by George Wolf
If plot is what happens and story is how it happens, there’s no better title for Noah Baumbach’s latest than Marriage Story.
For years, Baumbach’s films have probed characters struggling to live up to an image of themselves. It’s what he does, and now Baumbach has written and directed his masterpiece, a bravely personal and beautifully heartbreaking deconstruction of a marriage falling apart.
Adam Driver is Charlie, a New York stage director. Scarlett Johansson is Nicole, an L.A. film actress who made the switch to NYC live theater when she married Charlie and they welcomed son Henry (Azhy Robertson).
We meet Charlie and Nicole in counseling, taking part in an exercise that reminds them why they married and reminds us how skilled Baumbach is at not only writing wonderfully organic dialog, but in bringing it to the screen with layer upon layer of authenticity.
Tremendous performances from Johansson and Driver cement our immersion into the lives of two people valiantly trying to retain some control over the process of splitting up.
Nicole hurts deeply but wears a brave face, unsure of how to approach a future without Charlie, but unable to deny that life with him has meant she “got smaller.” Johannson has never been better, successfully mining Nicole’s mix of pain and defiance with silent tears and impassioned outbursts alike.
Here’s something I’ve said a lot this year: Driver is one the most consistently impressive actors around. His skill at finding the human center of his characters is subtle but unmistakable, and here Driver never lets you abandon Charlie, most importantly when his refusals to face reality seem like cathartic soul-baring from Baumbach himself.
We see the details that make up the work of a marriage, and the subtle cracks that weaken the relationship and begin to pull two people apart. And with the break comes the battle for child custody and the business of divorce.
But even as their two opposing lawyers (Ray Liotta and Laura Dern, Oscar-worthy herself) bleed the couple’s finances and turn the fight dirty, Baumbach never gets petty. When you think the film is taking sides it makes a subtle change in direction, slowly building toward the brilliantly executed emotional tsunami you know is coming.
Will you need tissues? Oh yes. The story of Nicole and Charlie’s marriage will put you through the wringer. And every frame is absolutely worth it.
Late in the film, Charlie’s out with a group of theater friends and ends up joining a pianist to sing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” So we have a theater guy going through a tumultuous divorce taking time to sing a Broadway classic about the risk of commitment. It’s a sequence that could have easily devolved into self-indulgent excess, but instead only confirms the depth of Baumbach’s reach.
He lets another writer’s words brilliantly refocus what Charlie and Nicole will always mean to other, and like everything else in Marriage Story, it feels real, true and necessary.
It feels alive.