A devastating portrait of marital breakdown is provided by Noah (The Squid and the Whale) Baumbach in his most personal film to date Marriage Story (now on release).
Nicole is an actor. Charlie is a director. Together they run a New York based theatre company. They are also married and have a son. But Nicole is a West Coaster who wants to resuscitate her career and craves a different pace and a healthier life for their family. Charlie can’t bear California for too long. Accepting a temporary separation while Nicole takes a film job in LA, the dissimilarities in their desires becomes a chasm. Of course the extent of the hostility and resentment between them doesn’t take too long to bubble to the surface, as civility gives way to acrimony and the couple who were clearly in love throughout their ten-year marriage, now file for divorce and battle for custody over their eight-year-old son. In fact they can’t bear to even sit together on the subway back from work.
It’s an economical plot, the gradual unravelling of a marriage, but the greatest pleasure–and agony–lies in the details. Baumbach is a master of understanding what makes people tick and of mining his material for laughs in even the most desolate emotional scenes, such as Charlie steadily falling apart under the unforgiving eye of a family custody worker, observing him with his son. A near-perfect tone is created by Baumbach who also occasionally takes a step back to show just how pampered and self-indulgent these two warring spouses really are. Arguably, though, his greatest achievement in this film lies in the writing and how he manages to portray both sides’ opinion and apportion blame equally. His characters are fully fleshed-out, replete with failings and foibles. There are no heroes or villains and this only heightens the heartbreak.
Of course the film mainly derives its power from the two excellent lead performances–Adam Driver as Charlie, the feted director of avant-garde theatre, starting out loose and rangy and then slowly stiffening, as if the legal back-and-forth has bent his very body out of shape, while Scarlett Johansson, in one of her best performances, delivers brilliantly textured work as Nicole, a woman who longs to find her voice and strike out on her own, but is never fully convinced that the ends justify the means. They are in fact hapless prisoners of a system that rewards bad behaviour, while penalising acts of kindness. Laura Dern and Ray Liotta are equally impressive as spiky and hilariously observed West Coast divorce lawyers.
This, then, is an absorbing, balanced and moving movie about breaking up, while trying to keep it together.
Stills from Marriage Story
Johansson and Driver lend extraordinary weight to the gradual unravelling of a marriage as the protagonists retreat from civility into acrimonious divorce. Absorbing, balanced and moving.