As with so many relationships that end in divorce, a lack of communication is at the core of the troubles for the couple in Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story. Using his relationship with his ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, as a basis for the movie, there's an intimacy to what we see that is at times uncomfortable but smacks of an honesty that comes from experience. Credit the filmmaker for being so open as the film has a genuine feeling about it that's at times heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful.
Like so many couples, Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) have grown apart, their interests have diverged, small slights have taken on outsized meaning and their first thoughts are now of themselves rather than their spouse. The actress wants to go back home to California to pursue film and television opportunities while he wishes to stay in New York City to nurture and run his theater company, which is on the verge of great success. Nicole also wants to take their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her. Thinking their separation will not be permanent, Charlie agrees to this arrangement and is more than a bit shocked when he visits them a couple months later and is served with divorce papers.
This sets into motion a series of decisions that wind up driving the couple further apart, their actions becoming more and more self-serving as they both realize they must look out for their own self-interests, though promising one another this would not be the case. If there's a villain in the piece, Nicole's lawyer, Nora (a very good Laura Dern), fits the bill. Disingenuous and self-serving, she drives a wedge between the couple that facilitates nothing but debt and distrust, promoting her own agenda every step of the way. Jay Marotta (a too-brief Ray Liotta) is her counterpart who Charlie reluctantly hires; during the couple's first court hearing, Baumbach effectively drives home just how far out of the couple's hands this matter has become and that the only ones who will profit are the lawyers. The only voice of reason is Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), Charlie's first attorney who warns him of the long battle he has in front of him and admits, that while he has plenty of personal and professional experience in this area, he may not be the lawyer he needs.
There are agonizing scenes aplenty and the two leads are more than up to the task of expressing the mounting frustration, momentary hate and enduring love that exists between Charlie and Nicole. Anyone who's been through a divorce will recognize these moments thanks to the passion Driver and Johansson display. You believe every single moment they share, whether they're tearing each other apart, sharing a tender moment or struggling to understand one another. Any accolades they may receive for their raw performances will be well-deserved.
There's a sense of hope at the end that's genuine; it never smacks of pandering or manipulation but rather speaks to the understanding that occurs when, having gone through the crucible of divorce, former marrieds are able to recognize that the love they have for one another hasn't disappeared, but has taken a new form. Divorce is commonplace and Marriage Story recognizes this; ultimately, its power lies in acknowledging that something rich and meaningful can exist beyond it.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.