Writer-director Noah Baumbach first gained widespread critical acclaim with The Squid and The Whale, an autobiographically inspired child’s-eye view of a family falling apart. His latest offers a reverse-take on a similar scenario – a bittersweet portrait of an imploding marriage told from the perspective of the couple for whom custody of their child becomes an increasingly fractious issue. Just as Jeff Daniels declared that the whole thing’s very complicated in 2005, so Scarlett Johansson insists in Marriage Story that it’s not as simple as not being in love any more. Yet while those phrases seem to echo each other, making these films apparent companion pieces, the distance that Baumbach has travelled since the days of The Squid and The Whale is enormous. Lacking the embittered dyspepsia of his Margot at the Wedding, and blessed with a generosity of spirit that has grown in the wake of While We’re Young, this often hilarious heartbreaker is simply Baumbach’s best film to date – insightful, sympathetic and rather beautifully bewildered.
Marriage Story opens with a recitation of observed qualities – some profound, others typically quirky – that Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) love about each other. She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things, says Charlie, as loose-limbed, hand-held shots show intimate images of the subject of his affections. She listens, she chooses great presents, she’s Bola Deposit Pulsa, she’s a mother who plays – really plays.
Nicole’s own account appears no less glowing, citing the ease with which Charlie cries in movies, the fact “he loves being a dad, that he’s brilliant, energy conscioue and “never lets other people keep him from what he wants to do.
It sounds like a perfect relationship, albeit one in which both parties are very competitive. But it’s soon revealed that these testimonies are just opening salvos in an increasingly hostile separation; an illusion of mediation that will soon be weaponised by divorce lawyers. What follows is an after-the-fact love story; a reverse-engineered portrait of a marriage that only becomes visible in the aftermath of its own destruction. Over the next two hours we will watch this once-devoted couple tear themselves and each other apart, frequently with a hint of self-referential sardonic amusement (Baumbach’s trademark register), but more often with a sense of the understated tragedy of estrangement.
Having lived together in New York, where Nicole starred in Charlie’s theatre productions wherein both achieved critical acclaim, she is decamping to LA where a TV pilot awaits. Charlie insists the move is temporary, but increasingly their son, Henry, seems to view California as home. Wherever they go, the couple appear trapped, a quality emphasised by cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s carefully choreographed, Bergman-esque framing, capturing them in confined interiors even while those around them babble about “the space” of Los Angeles.
There’s more than a touch of Annie Hall in the constant juggling of past and present, east and west, performance and reality. As the title suggests, this is a story about stories, such as the one Nicole tells about her early relationship with Charlie, in a bravura extended monologue in the office of Laura Dern’s razor-sharp divorce lawyer Nora. Kramer vs Kramer may be an obvious touchstone, but Baumbach significantly cites Renoir’s first world war picture La Grande Illusion as an influence; this may not be war but, as Nora says, it’s about to become a street fight, in which legality trumps love and genius becomes an asset, the spoils of which must be divided equally.
While the legal procedural thread underwrites the narrative, tonally, Marriage Story slips nimbly between registers ranging from tender emotional drama to laugh-out-loud screwball comedy. A scene involving the serving of divorce papers turns tragedy into farce, while Nicole’s instruction to her mother (splendidly played by Julie Hagerty) to stop loving Charlie! provokes laughter and tears in equal measure. There’s even a musical element, with the diegetic deployment of Stephen Sondheim songs packing an unexpected emotional punch, while Randy Newman’s contrapuntally romantic score ensures that our heartstrings are pulled in several directions at once.
At the centre of it all, however, are a pair of brilliant performances by Johansson and Driver, both of whom embrace and inhabit their characters’ flaws and foibles. In the supporting roles, Dern is superb (watch her deadpan the punchline to a riff about Tom Petty’s royalties – ha!) Ray Liotta kills it as a lawyer operating somewhere between reasonable and crazy and Alan Alda offers a softening influence, perfectly in tune with the ultimately forgiving attitude that lifts this film to a higher level.