There is a scene in “Marriage Story” that is devastating to watch as Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver tear each other down as words, like daggers dipped in venom, pierce the hearts of two people who were once very much in love. The two actors play a couple in the midst of a nasty divorce in this generation's “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Writer-director Noah Baumbach first explored the topic with 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale” about two brothers dealing with their parents’ divorce. Here the focus is on the parents. Both films, drawn from Baumbach’s personal life, impeccably capture the pain, anguish, and fallout associated with the breakup. Exquisite performances by Johansson and Driver make this an unforgettable movie-going experience.
Driver plays Charlie, an avant-garde theater director and husband to Johansson’s Nicole, an actress from Los Angeles and mother to their 8-year old son Henry (Azhy Robertson). The couple have been married for over a decade and reside in Brooklyn where for the last several years Charlie has been directing his off-Broadway play with Nicole as the lead.
The film opens with scenes of happier times as both characters describe in voice over narration what they love about each other. Charlie explains, “She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things” and “She really listens when someone is talking.” He continues on about Nicole, “She always knows the right thing to do” and “She’s my favorite actress.” Then we hear Johansson’s voice describing Charlie, “He cries easily in movies,” “He’s very self-sufficient,” and “He loves being a dad.”
Suddenly we find the couple sitting in a mediator’s office as they prepare for their eventual divorce. The kind words we heard them speaking about each other in the previous scene were in the forms of letters written as an exercise to bring positivity to the meeting by reminding the couple why they got married in the first place. Nicole, however, refuses to read hers because she doesn’t like what she wrote. Happiness has turned to bitterness as the session abruptly ends with Nicole walking out.
“Marriage Story” demonstrates how quickly the divorce process can escalate from 0 to 100 as Charlie and Nicole agree to split amicably without involving lawyers. At stake is Henry’s well-being as he splits his time between Los Angeles, where he’s relocating with Nicole as she begins work on a new TV pilot, and New York, where Charlie plans to stay as his play heads to Broadway.
Baumbach’s screenplay is filled with biting comedy, moments of emotional highs, and rock bottom lows energized by Johansson and Driver who turn in career-high performances. Even though this is not a romantic comedy, its still a love story, and I love the casting of these two actors as a couple. They resemble the real-life couples we see all the time who at first glance seem mismatched, I mean superhero Black Widow with villain Kylo Ren, really? But if you’re lucky enough to get to know one of these couples it becomes evident how perfect they really are for each other. Here, however, even “perfect” couples don’t always make it.
It doesn’t take long for the story to enter savage-mode once both parties eventually lawyer up with Nicole taking the first step. She’s represented by powerhouse attorney Nora Fanshaw (an excellent Laura Dern) who’s ready to take Charlie to the cleaners even when Nicole is against it. Dern is so good that maybe there should be a spinoff Nora Fanshaw movie. Alan Alda makes an appearance as a mild-mannered lawyer willing to represent Charlie but let’s face it Nora would devour him in court. You’ve got to fight fire with fire and in this case there’s only one person that can take on Dern and that’s Ray Liotta of course. The fiery actor is in full Liotta-mode in a terrific courtroom scene featuring the two attorneys trading barbs.
The supporting cast features Julie Haggerty as Nicole’s mom (who adores Charlie) and Merritt Wever as Nicole’s sister who is also an actress. The showbiz family comes together in one party scene where the three ladies sing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Stephen Sondheim's “Company” while Driver delivers a cathartic rendition of “Being Alive” from the same 1970 musical comedy.
Marriage involves sacrifice and in many cases it’s usually one partner sacrificing more for the other but working together as a team. It would seem easy to root for Johansson’s character because she obviously sacrificed her career and living closer to family on the West Coast, but this is not that kind of film. Baumbach manages to keep the story balanced by showing how Charlie boosted his wife’s career by casting her in his play and while he’s self-absorbed, he’s also a great dad and on par with Nicole being a terrific mom. Also, no matter how dark life gets for these two Baumbach keeps hope alive in the heartfelt film. Terrific screenplay and performances, but did anyone doubt what would emerge from a Johansson, Driver, Baumbach collaboration?
Opens Friday 11/29 in Austin at Violet Crown Cinema, AFS Cinema, and Southwest Theaters Lake Creek. Premieres on Netflix December 6.