Best known for perceptive dramedies featuring eccentric characters and scenarios, Noah Baumbach’s eleventh feature film Marriage Story sees the director at his most mature, delivering a film as nuanced and human as you’ll see this year. It is the story of married couple Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) Barber, who struggle to stick to their wishes of an amicable divorce as emotion and lawyers get in the way.
The highlight of the film, as has been much publicised, is the acting. Johansson and Driver tackle rich, complicated, and realistic characters with a vigor and sharpness only the very best are capable of. Johansson, going through a divorce of her own at the time of filming, is given the steadier of the two characters, her Nicole an actress from an acting family, confident and generally collected, and the initiator of the separation. Driver gets meatier material to chew on and is thus the standout, giving what I consider the best performance of the year to this point.
Johansson has the tougher role (I’ll talk more about this later), never quite able to establish herself as the viewer’s ‘favourite’, mostly due to her early success in securing a ruthless lawyer. She fully invests herself in the role though, never allowing Nicole to be a villain, her only negative traits mostly being by association with the divorce law game. It’s far and away the best work she’s ever done and a great reminder of what she’s capable of outside the spandex. Likewise Driver, lately seen doing some serious emoting under a mask in the Star Wars world, has never been better. As I said, the role is a strong one, and Driver completely owns it. From the big showpiece moments to simply getting annoyed at his son, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a stronger performance than this.
In supporting roles we also get excellent work from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, and Azhy Robertson. Dern plays celebrity lawyer Nora Fanshaw, who Nicole employs early on and who has her playing the game straight away, putting Charlie well and truly on the back foot. Alda is Bert Spitz, the first lawyer Charlie goes to, before being forced to go for the harder nose of Liotta’s Jay Morotta. Dern and Liotta are a burning mix of professional acumen and disheartening cynicism, Nora especially befriending Nicole and being friendly to Charlie but tearing him apart when in lawyer mode. Morotta is the bulldog Charlie needs to compete with Nora, having first gone to Alda’s far more pleasant Spitz. All are excellent, as is Robertson as the couple’s not very likable yet realistic son Henry, with Dern the standout in my eyes.
All these characters work so well because Baumbach has given them dimensions, rough edges and bad habits always balanced but never overshadowed by redeeming qualities. Charlie comes across as the more sympathetic character, and given his infidelity is provided as a key reason for the breakdown of the marriage, this could seem a little on the nose. But it’s because he feels so real that we do consider the sum of the character’s parts, not just the ones that can be thrown back in his face by the lawyers. Likewise Nicole, the initiator of the divorce and the one who is ostensibly in the power position, never feels unfair or unjust because of the well-rounded nature of the writing.
Another aspect that builds our rapport with the main characters is the depiction of the legal process. Nora (and Jay as well) comes across as a machine within a machine, able to speak amicably to and even compliment Charlie’s work during breaks from proceedings, and immediately switch to tearing him a new one as soon as she’s back in lawyer mode, doing what she needs to do to get the very best result for her client. Having gone through it himself, Baumbach obviously doesn’t have the best view of the whole process and the world of divorce lawyers, and the result is forcing the audience to feel sorry for everyone who has to go through all of this. Even beyond the lawyers, seeing Charlie having to go about his business with his son as a ‘domestic investigator’ was like a horror movie.
On a technical level, the film neither wows or disappoints. Several visual choices are hugely effective – wide angle shots for arguments, ground-up shots for intimate moments – but the camera is often just there to capture everything. Interestingly, the lighting is often very bright and summery, contrasting with the storm that hangs over this young family. Randy Newman’s score has been much praised but I wasn’t completely on board. His cheery melodies at times worked beautifully, notably during the film’s terrific opening sequence, but lacked the power during key dramatic moments. All in all its the Baumbach show behind the scenes, even things like his showing the minutiae of daily life standing out above any camera or sound tricks.
It is an at times brutally ugly and uncomfortable watch, but Baumbach’s talent in finding humour in any situation really comes to the fore here, keeping things from getting too grim and always thoroughly captivating. Having Johansson and Driver delivering the best work of their careers, and some of the best of the year so far, certainly doesn’t hurt. This combination of elite acting and brilliant writing has produced one of the most perceptive films of recent years; identifying what makes divorce so hard, but also why people fall in love with each other in the first place.