If there’s one message that’s abundantly clear throughout Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, it’s that divorce is awful. Not only due to the wrenching emotions involved (though they’re clearly on display here), but for the process itself. The separating parties here play Monopoly on a regular basis with their son. And the lawyers involved here often treat the dissolution of Charlie and Nicole’s union as a similar game of take and take. It’s so personal, but it’s also business.
Adam Driver’s Charlie is an acclaimed NYC playwright married to Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole, a former teen actress who turned feature player in his theater productions. We meet them as they’ve already decided to divorce. They talk as if they want the procedure to go as smoothly as possible, but soon discover that’s impossible. The problems include custody disputes with their boy Henry (Azhy Robertson), a bicoastal disagreement as Nicole moves back to L.A. to go into TV, and their attorneys always trying to get an edge. Laura Dern’s high-priced Nora represents Nicole while Alan Alda’s weary Bert and Ray Liotta’s unrelenting Jay take turns with Charlie.
Apparently based somewhat on Baumbach’s own experiences, the writer and director is careful not to take sides. Marriage Story doesn’t have heroes or villains and even the counselors are doing their job. It’s the system that’s created them and Baumbach spares no witty anger in condemning it.
This subject matter is nothing new to big screen and it was 40 years ago that Kramer vs. Kramer also took on the divorce industry and won Best Picture for it. We are fortunate that Baumbach spends the time developing Charlie and Nicole into fully formed beings. You’ll root for them and against them. You may hope for a reconciliation, but with a knowing that this incompatibility is legitimate. Lesser films might attempt to find the easy way out.
Marriage Story has a stagey feel to it. There’s long monologues and lengthy scenes of actors discussing their game plan. We even have a couple unexpected musical interludes from the divorcees. Driver and Johansson are certainly up to the task with particularly solid supporting turns from Dern and Alda. The former may have the flashier part, but Alda’s character is equally intergral. When Charlie points out that these proceedings are unnecessarily complex and often contradictory, Bert can’t even muster the energy to counter these points. And while the auteur’s latest doesn’t exactly break new ground, it is often absorbing and exceedingly well performed.
*** (out of four)