Marriage Story review: Noah Baumbach’s film starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson is one of his finest

Movie allows its two stars to give memorably raw and tender performances in roles a very long way away from the superhero types in either Avengers or Star Wars

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 13 November 2019 18:10
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Marriage Story - trailer

Dir: Noah Baumbach. Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern. Cert 15, 135 mins

Marriage Story is about what Gwyneth Paltrow famously called a “conscious uncoupling” when she was in the laborious process of ending her marriage to Chris Martin. It details, in minute and often tragicomic detail, the divorce of a husband and wife who seem perfectly suited to one another but whose relationship has nonetheless hit the reefs.

Divorce clearly brings out the best in writer-director Noah Baumbach. This is his finest film since The Squid and the Whale (2005), which was inspired by the break-up of his parents’ marriage. It allows its two stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver to give memorably raw and tender performances in roles a very long way away from the superhero types in either Avengers or Star Wars. Baumbach strikes a near-perfect tone, combining humour and pathos. He also occasionally takes a step back to show just how pampered and self-indulgent these two warring spouses really are. The Netflix-backed film is bound to be compared to Kramer vs Kramer as an example of very superior schmaltz.

Baumbach starts off proceedings in deceptively sweet-natured fashion. We hear Charlie (Driver) rhapsodising about why he loves Nicole (Johansson). He talks about her habits and eccentricities – the way she is forever brewing cups of tea that she doesn’t finish, her improbably strong arms which enable her to twist open even the toughest jar lid and her commitment to playing with their son. She responds in kind, talking about his dress sense, his neatness, his prowess in the kitchen etc etc. The saccharine observations belie what follows. Charlie and Nicole think of themselves as mature, sensitive adults who will separate in a way that does the least harm to their young child. Of course, the extent of the hostility and resentment between them doesn’t take long to bubble to the surface.

Charlie is a successful, somewhat pretentious Brooklyn-based theatre director who runs his own troupe, Exit Goat. He may not be rich but he has been on the cover of Time Out and his experimental off-Broadway productions get glowing reviews. Nicole is the lead actress in the troupe. She is originally from California, where she worked in films (and achieved cult status for a topless scene in a teen movie), but has forsaken a potential career in Hollywood to be with Charlie.

The cracks in the relationship appear after Nicole is offered a part in a TV drama soon to shoot in LA. Charlie despises television. Nicole has begun to think her husband takes her for granted. He no longer sees her “as somebody separate from himself”.

One of the pleasures here lies in three tremendous performances from Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as the LA lawyers who represent the couple as the divorce turns nasty. Dern’s character, Nora Fanshaw, is very similar to the high-powered businesswoman she played in HBO series Big Little Liesa glamorous extrovert who tends to steamroller her way over anything in her path. Liotta is more the street-fighter type, a courtroom hustler who could come from the pages of Damon Runyon. Alda is the worldly wise but ineffective old-timer. The lawyers are both venal and sympathetic. They have insights into human nature that their clients lack. As one of them notes, criminal lawyers see bad people at their best but “divorce lawyers see good people at their worst”.

The moment the lawyers are hired, the meter starts running. Baumbach makes it very obvious that divorce is an expensive and messy business. Truth and respect are soon forgotten as each parent fights for custody of the child and endless new bills need to be paid.

The same paradox applies here as in Kramer vs Kramer. The husband and wife may be splitting up but they haven’t stopped loving one another. There are moments of intimacy (for example, Nicole giving Charlie a haircut or Charlie helping his soon to be ex-wife when the electricity goes on the blink) when they temporarily forget their estrangement.

Baumbach pays explicit homage to Scenes from a Marriage and includes a few moments in which the couples are shown in huge, unflattering close-up, tearing strips off one another with a viciousness which rekindles memories of alienated couples in Ingmar Bergman movies. Generally, though, he treats his main characters with gentleness. Once they decide to end their marriage, Nicole and Charlie are at the mercy of lawyers who benefit from their misery.

The film never loses its sense of humour and absurdity. Somehow, in spite of the bleakness of the subject matter, it feels more redemptive than despairing.

Marriage Story will be available to stream on Netflix from 6 December

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