“Divorce is like a death, just without a corpse,” a lawyer says in Noah Baumbach’s new movie Marriage Story. What is true for almost half of all marriages, is often downgraded to a formality. But this deeply empathetic film shows the often overlooked pain, grief and exhausting logistics of making one life into two separate ones.
We meet Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johanson). Nicole was once known as “the hot one” from a college comedy, but left a lucrative movie career in LA for a more uncertain theatre career in New York. What provoked this choice was Charlie; a confident and talented theatre director who reflects New York’s hard-working, rough and slightly arrogant charm.
The movie does not show their marriage collapsing, instead it begins when Nicole and Charlie start the process of divorce. Along with the couple’s lawyers and friends, the audience are told the story of the two; how they met, why they fell for each other, and where everything went wrong.
Between them is their son Henry, portrayed by the very cute Azhy Roberston. He is not only the reason why Nicole and Charlie try to maintain some stability in the relationship, but also the reason why the divorce becomes a logistical hell. Nicole brings him to LA to shoot a TV pilot, and Charlie is forced to commute between New York and LA both to be with his son and complete the divorce in the city where his wife has hired a lawyer.
It is the contrast between the two cities, on opposite coasts of the United States, that makes Baumbach’s storytelling work so extremely well. Nicole is LA, Charlie is New York.
Bumbach himself is a proud New Yorker, and has placed several of his most successful films in the city, including Frances Ha and The Meyerowitz Stories. He has the same cinematic love for New York’s streets, sounds, pace and people as Woody Allen, and creates a romanticized image of the city that certainly helps bringing young hopefuls there every single year.
There is no doubt that Baumbach does not have much left over for the opposite coast. In Marriage Story, the people you meet there are characteristic LA nightmares: a little too friendly, a little too enthusiastic, with teeth that are way too white.
This makes New Yorker Charlie’s discomfort and misplacement in his wife’s hometown extra obvious. Adam Driver’s huge figure is a little too big for all the rooms he is in, especially the cars he is forced to drive in the horisontal city. He doesn’t trust any of the people he meets there and doesn’t understand why everyone raves about “all the space”. (This serves one of the films very best running jokes.) As the extremely sympathetic actor he is, Driver makes the audience feel as alien in the city as Charlie does, and his passive-aggressiveness creeps under your skin.
Worth noting from the LA side of the movie is Nicole’s lawyer played by Laura Dern (Renata from Big Little Lies). She is a hard working women’s advocate who does everything to make her clients feel cared for, supported and, of course, that they are left with the most money after the papers are signed. Despite being responsible for much of the film’s comedy and LA jokes, she also delivers what must be one of the most important monologues in film this year, about the double standards women must face in marriage and divorce.
Despite Dern’s phenomenal performance, the real stars of the film are Johansson and Driver. As Marriage Story does not show a marriage in disintegration, but rather tells the story of it after it has happened, the film is driven by dialogue – and a dialogue never better than those who perform it.
Johansson’s talent has been a fact since Lost in Translation, but in Marriage Story she finally shows off everything she is good for. Wether it’s anger, longing, love or sadness, she helps you feel the exact same impulses and instincts that Nicole does in her transition to life without Charlie.
The chemistry between Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver is ultimately what brings this movie from good to great. Driver is undoubtedly more interesting and gripping than his counterpart, but it works so well as Charlie is also more interesting and gripping than Nicole – and he knows it all too well.
But the two meet at the same wavelength a couple of times during the movie, and those moments show a vulnerability and sadness one almost feels a little guilty for observing. As if you’ve walked into a room where someone is having a conversation you’re not supposed to be hearing.
But Marriage Story is not a sad film. It is about hope, humanity, family and the love that still exists between two people despite the marriage not working. It is a persistently charming movie, which makes you laugh at one moment and miss your ex in the next.
It’s only problem is that it’s too good for Netflix. It deserves a dark room, big screen and all your attention. Don’t let it have to compete for your focus while looking through the Insta stories of people you don’t even like.
Marriage Story Premieres on Netflix tomorrow.