Marriage Story (2019)

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are an estranged couple in Marriage Story

Director: Noah Baumbach

Cast: Scarlett Johansson (Nicole Barber), Adam Driver (Charlie Barber), Laura Dern (Nora Fanshaw), Alan Alda (Bert Spitz), Ray Liotta (Jay Moratta), Azhy Robertson (Henry Barber), Julie Hagerty (Sanda), Merritt Wever (Cassie), Wallace Shawn (Frank), Martha Kelly (Nancy Katz)

It’s a scenario that more and more marriages in our modern world head towards – divorce. And it’s never easy to separate from something that has dominated your life for years, and the more that bonds two people together, the harder to pull them apart. As the film says, “it’s not as simple as not being in love any more” – and the complex emotional bonds that form between people, and the inability we have to switch these on and off like lights, are what drive Noah Baumbach’s film, heavily influenced by his own real-life divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is a former child-star who has built a career as a respected theatre actor in tandem with her husband Charlie Barber (Adam Driver), an acclaimed and visionary theatre director. Living in New York with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), their marriage is dissolving with Nicole frustrated at Charlie’s selfishness, just as Charlie is angered by what he sees as her refusal to take full responsibility for her career choices. As mediation fails, Nicole returns to LA for a role in a TV series, taking Henry with her. With divorce papers filed in LA, the couple engage in a cross-state legal battle for custody and finances, with their positions increasingly weaponised into hostile encounters by their respective legal teams. No one is coming out of this one unscathed.

Baumbach’s film is tender, sympathetic and offers a fine line of arch comedy and even farce (at points), that works over time to be as even-handed as it possibly can. The film’s sympathies are aimed not solely at husband or wife, but at the couple themselves wrapped up in the hostile, money-spinning world of divorce where, it’s strongly implied, the only real winners are the lawyers making thousands of dollars spinning out clashes as long (and as aggressively) as possible in order to cement their positions and keep their industry going.

The film is a solid denunciation of the entire industry that has grown up around divorce, where it’s seemingly impossible to find any arrangement alone without lawyers giving it a legal force, or to come out without that process consuming most of the wealth of the couple. Even worse in this case, the main battle-ground becomes the rights of each parent to access to their son, Henry’s college fund disappearing into a legal battle and the child becoming the centre of both fraught attentions and an unseemly competition for affection between both parents, effectively offering bribes for preferential responses from their son. All in order to prove that their link to him is the stronger.

The tragedy of all this – the way the system seems designed to turn personal relationships poisonous and bitter – becomes Baumbach’s focus. Brilliantly the film starts with a voiceover from both Nicole and Charlie in turn, over a montage, stressing the wide list of things they loved about their partner in the first place: part, it is revealed, of a mediation session that ends in disaster and Nicole’s walkout. But the closeness, the bond, the intimacy of these two people is revisited time and time again in the film. Legal dispute scenes and lawyer confrontations are followed by perfectly friendly home visits and regretful conversations. Legal meetings are bizarrely punctuated by coffee with conversation from the lawyers suddenly turning light and breezy. Then, as events hit a courtroom, moments like Charlie’s failure to properly install a car seat are spun out by lawyers as evidence of his risky disregard of his child’s safety while Nicole’s glass of wine after work becomes incipient alcoholism. 

For a film about divorce, it’s striking that it’s the process of divorce that turns the couple’s relationship increasingly toxic (culminating in a brutal scene where each throws increasingly personal and cruel abuse at each other for other five minutes). Sure there are resentments and anger at the front, but these are kept under reserve and still allow the couple to chat and negotiate amicably when they’re by themselves. As soon as the lawyers are involved, the mood steadily turns worse and worse. 

This is part of the film’s attempt to present the couple even-handedly. I’d say it only partially succeeds at this – with a 55/45 split in favour of Charlie, who is presented as the most “victimised” by the system, as the New York man having to prove he has a link to his now-LA-based-son. While Nicole does get a fantastic monologue (brilliantly performed by Johansson, full of regret, apology, anger and confusion) where she outlines Charlie’s selfishness, distance and probable (later confirmed) affair to her lawyer, the focus soon shifts to Charlie’s travails in the system. It’s him hit by a blizzard of demands from court and lawyer. It’s him who is separated from his son. It’s him who pays the biggest financial burden. It’s him who takes the biggest blows and has to bend his whole life to try and claim a residency in LA. It’s not a surprise Baumbach marginally favours his surrogate, but it does leave you wanting a few more scenes – especially in the latter half of the film – for the impact on Nicole.

However you keep on side with both halves of the couple thanks to the superb performances from Johansson and Driver. Johansson is both fragile and acidly combative, a woman who feels she has led someone else’s life for far too long. Driver is a bewildered gentle giant, but carrying a long streak of self-justifying self-obsession, clearly believing himself the only victim, but deeply hurt by the situation he finds himself in.

Supporting him are three very different lawyers. Laura Dern is on Oscar-winning form as Nicole’s brash, confident, ruthless defender with a smile so practised it’s hard to tell when it’s false or when it’s true. Alan Alda is endearing – but also gently out of his depth – as Charlie’s more conciliatory first lawyer (in one brilliant moment, Charlie interrupts a lengthy joke from Alda’s Bert during a sidebar with the frustrated put down “sorry Bert am I paying for this joke?”) while Ray Liotta channels De Niro roughness as his fiercely competitive second lawyer.

Marriage Story is a bittersweet, superbly made, moving but occasionally strangely funny story of a couple falling out of love and trying to find the way of converting that into a functioning co-parenting friendship. Throughout it’s not the couple, but the system making money from their dysfunction, that’s to blame in this marvellously written and superbly played drama.

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