When you see the movie you might think it should have been called “Divorce Story.” Things are on the rocks from the get-go.
But eventually the rightness of calling it “Marriage Story” becomes clear. Out of the grisly business of a 21st-century divorce, we can see what this particular marriage was all about. We’re watching an autopsy that reveals the long-term problems.
At times harrowing but often blazingly funny, “Marriage Story” has been getting the best reviews of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s career. Baumbach has 25 years under his belt — including “The Squid and the Whale,” “Frances Ha” and the Gen X touchstone “Kicking and Screaming” — but this one, already highly touted as an Oscar probable, represents a new kind of prominence.
The married people on screen are Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). He’s a self-centered theater director, she’s a self-sacrificing actress, and they have a young son (Azhy Robertson).
They’ve been in New York for a decade, but Nicole is trying to re-start her film career in Hollywood — a part of the separation that becomes significant as the initially amicable divorce spirals into nastiness.
On that last point, one of the curious things about “Marriage Story” is that it nudges away from its rich observations as a character study to become a satirical attack on the divorce industry. These two tendencies don’t always dovetail neatly together.
The other curious thing is that while the movie labors to be even-handed, its emotional weight lands on Charlie’s side. He takes plenty of criticism, but we see things from his perspective more than from Nicole’s point-of-view, and his motivations and exasperations are clearer.
Baumbach tries to balance it out by giving Nicole a long, knockout sequence early on, as she pours her heart out to a high-powered L.A. lawyer (Laura Dern, in great form — but when isn’t she?). Johansson plays the scene beautifully, a reminder of what we’ve been missing with her years toiling in the Marvel cinematic conglomerate.
Driver also is splendid, in a full-bore emotional performance that displays the actor’s usual touch with finding authentic notes. Charlie has lawyers, too, including a slick shark (Ray Liotta) and a kind-hearted fumbler (Alan Alda).
Baumbach has always had a good eye for actors and behavior. Seeing Driver’s gawky, over-sized features matched with Johansson’s elfin quickness is like visual shorthand for wondering how these two fit together. And Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever are a riot as Nicole’s neurotic mother and sister, respectively.
The film’s humor has a bracing edge, and Randy Newman’s sensitive music sets the scene without intruding. I wish Nicole didn’t seem to slip away during the second half of the film, but overall this is a strong work. “Marriage Story” begins with the main characters listing the things they appreciate about the other, and ends with a different, freshly seen angle on the list. The appreciation is sincere, but the stuff in between makes this a divorce story.
“Marriage Story” (3 stars)
Noah Baumbach’s keenly observed and often very funny study of a divorcing couple (played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), and how their initially civilized separation turns into something nasty. Terrific performances help disguise the way the movie tends to lean toward the male side of the story. With Laura Dern, Alan Alda.
Rating: R, for language, subject matter
Opening Wednesday: Crest theater; Dec. 6 on Netflix