Perhaps the first thing you should know is this isn’t about marriage. It’s actually a divorce story. Not the cheeriest news to break, I admit, but that’s the way this particular tough cookie crumbles.
However, in the hands of director Noah Baumbach and lead actors Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, you’d still have to call Marriage Story a comedy. There are laughs here. We exist, after all, in a post-comedy, post-irony universe where TV sitcoms are called Catastrophe and Divorce and Fleabag and this new feature film plonks itself right in the middle of that pool, making the biggest splash so far and blowing them out of the water.
You find yourself laughing at the absurdity of the situations, before realising the full seriousness, the full pain of it all as a seemingly happily married couple, with a child, go about the horrid business of breaking up.
Driver plays Charlie, an avant-garde off-Broadway director, fiercely committed to his work and his troupe; Johansson is Nicole, his wife and muse, a former Hollywood teen star who gave up movies to work for this theatrical genius.
These are things we discover, little shocks along the way. Because the movie opens with a fabulous sequence in which the two leads extol the virtues of their partner in scenes so cute and loveable it comes like a blow to our very humanity to learn that they’re now splitting up, and even more when you find out the reason why they’re listing each other’s good parts.
It becomes a story of opposites: New York vs Los Angeles, theatre vs television, man vs woman, lawyer vs lawyer. Not for nothing have people labelled this Kramer vs Kramer for a new generation, although personally it’s not the movie comparison that springs to mind. This is more like a lost Woody Allen script, picked up, honed and perfected. There are Woody Allen alumni all over the place: Julie Hagerty, Alan Alda, Wallace Shawn and, of course, Scarlett herself and there’s the same heady mix of neurotic humour with intellectual posturing.
But Baumbach’s film goes to more personal places even than Woody. It might help to know that Baumbach himself went through messy divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh and is now with another partner, actress Greta Gerwig who starred in some of his earlier movies and who is now likely to be facing her husband off for a Best Director prize at the Oscars for her adaption of Little Women. That’s one high-achieving breakfast table right there.
Anyway, what I’m saying is that Baumbach clearly knows and feels the landscape acutely, the sheer nastiness of what happens when lawyers get involved. And the sheer necessity. Laura Dern is magnificent here as Nicole’s rep, delivering a key speech about how judges in such cases make cruel assessments on working mothers. Alan Alda, too, turns in a lovely, weary performance (it may be a performance, or it might just be that, at 83, he is actually lovely and weary these days) as Charlie’s kindly attorney, before a far more ruthless Ray Liotta turns up.
It all boils to an unforgettable showdown scene, shot in the sparse studio apartment Charlie’s forced to rent in downtown LA. And what a classic it is, destined to be shown in Oscar clips throughout the next few months and maybe rehashed in countless drama school auditions for years to come – it’s like something out of Bergman, or Edward Albee, as Charlie and Nicole thrash out years of resentment and frustration, airing feelings they perhaps never even knew they felt.
Scarlett’s wonderful. It’s her most mature performance yet, even in a career in which her preternatural grown-up-ness has been a key factor, ever since The Horse Whisperer and Lost in Translation. The fact that Scarlett’s been through a couple of divorces of her own may have something to do with it. She’s just a star, whatever.
But my word, even opposite her Adam Driver is something extraordinary. He is just superb here and you really never know what expression he’s going to come out with next, what emotion he’s going to hurl all over the screen. From comic to tragic, I’m not sure I’ve seen a more deft performance from any actor in many years – he genuinely looks like someone without a clue what’s happening nor what he’s done. He doesn’t battle to make us like Charlie but nor can we make him the villain. Driver simply inhabits the character to the utmost levels of believability. He even nails a Sondheim number that will bring you to tears.
Marriage Story is heartbreaking in all the best ways. It’ll make you take sides, then change your mind and then never want to get divorced (the sheer cost of it!), or by extension, maybe never want to get married. Love barely gets a look in but when it does, that’s when it gets you, right between the eyes. Love, and the glimmers of hope.
How Baumbach has made such an acerbic social comedy without succumbing to sentimentality nor depression is quite an achievement. It’s certainly one of the best films of the year, and of its director’s and stars’ careers – and, in its simple, heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, unflinching, absurdly funny honesty, probably one of the best of its generation.