Film Review: Marriage Story

Rating: 5

By Jason Solomons

Perhaps the first thing you should know is this isn’t about marriage. It’s actually a divorce story. Not the cheeriest news, I admit, but that’s the way this tough cookie crumbles.

However, in the hands of director Noah Baumbach and lead actors Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, you’d still have to call Marriage Story a comedy. There are laughs here. We exist, after all, in a post-irony universe where TV sitcoms are called Divorce or Fleabag. This film dives right into the middle of that pool, blowing the others right out of the water.

You find you’re laughing at the absurdity of the situations, before realising the full seriousness and pain as a (seemingly) happily married couple, with a child, go through the horrid business of breaking up.

Driver plays Charlie, an avant-garde off-Broadway director, fiercely committed to his work and his troupe; Johansson is Nicole, his wife and muse, a former Hollywood teen star who gave up movies to work for this theatrical genius.

These are things we discover, little shocks along the way. Because the movie opens with a fabulous sequence in which the two leads extol the virtues of their partner in scenes so loveable it comes like a blow to our very humanity to learn they’re now splitting up, even more so when you discover why they’re listing each other’s good parts.

It becomes a story of opposites: New York vs Los Angeles, theatre vs television, man vs woman, lawyer vs lawyer. Not for nothing have people labelled this Kramer vs Kramer for a new generation, although this is more like a lost Woody Allen script, picked up, honed and perfected. There are Allen alumni all over the place: Julie Hagerty, Alan Alda, Wallace Shawn and, of course, Johansson herself and there’s the same heady mix of neurotic humour with intellectual posturing.

But Baumbach’s film is even more personal than an Allen offering. It might help to know that Baumbach himself went through messy divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh and is now with another partner, actress Greta Gerwig who starred in some of his earlier films and is soon likely to be competing against her husband off for a Best Director prize at the Oscars for her adaption of Little Women.

Anyhow, Baumbach clearly knows what he’s talking about, the sheer nastiness of what happens when lawyers get involved. And the sheer necessity. Laura Dern is magnificent here as Nicole’s rep, delivering a key speech about how judges in such cases make cruel assessments on working mothers. Alda, too, turns in a lovely, weary performance (it may be a performance, or it might just be that, at 83, he is actually lovely and weary) as Charlie’s kindly attorney, before a far more ruthless Ray Liotta turns up.

It all culminates in an unforgettable showdown shot in the sparse studio apartment Charlie’s forced to rent in downtown LA. And what a classic it is, destined to be shown in Oscar clips over the next few months and maybe rehashed in countless drama school auditions for years to come – it’s like something out of Bergman, or Edward Albee, as Charlie and Nicole thrash out years of resentment and frustration.

Johansson’s wonderful. It’s her most mature performance yet. The fact that she’s been through a couple of divorces of her own may have shaped her performance – but she’s a star.

But opposite her, Driver is something extraordinary. He is just superb here and you really never know what expression he’ll wear next. I’m not sure I’ve seen a defter performance from any actor in many years – he genuinely looks like someone without a clue what’s happening. He doesn’t battle to make us like Charlie but neither can we make him the villain. Driver simply inhabits the character to the utmost levels of believability. He even nails a Sondheim number that will bring you to tears.

Marriage Story is heart-breaking in all the best ways. It’ll pull you one way and then the other; at times you’ll vow never to get divorced (the sheer cost), and at others you’ll be determined never to marry. Love barely gets a look in but when it does, that’s when it gets you – right between the eyes.

How Baumbach has made such an acerbic social comedy without succumbing to sentimentality or depression is a mystery. It’s certainly one of the best films of the year, and of its director’s and stars’ careers – and, in its simple, heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, unflinching, absurdly funny honesty, probably one of the best of its generation.