Some artists work in clay or marble, some in oils or watercolors or collage. Noah Baumbach works in film, and in breakups.
The writer-director is angling to be the poet laureate of parting, having covered the college split in his debut, Kicking and Screaming, the effects of divorce on children in The Squid and the Whale, and now the effects of children on divorce in Marriage Story. (Even when Baumbach’s characters do manage to stay attached, they’re hung up on a previous relationship, a la Mr. Jealousy.)
If that sounds grueling... well, it kind of is. Although here, Baumbach is judicious with the shouting and melodrama, instead focusing on the quietly frustrating complexities of two flawed people trying to do their best after their best has already proven not to be enough.
Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is a New York theater actress ready to move on to bigger opportunities in Los Angeles after largely surrendering her life and career to her work-obsessed writer-director husband, Charlie (Adam Driver). They’re wary of one another but willing to remain amicable in their separation—that is, until a disagreement over custody of their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), leads to an arms race of high-priced lawyers and a simmering antagonism.
Baumbach’s story is inspired by his own messy uncoupling from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the conflict in Marriage Story certainly feels lived-through. Baumbach, as both a dramatist and a comedic writer, has a keen sense of observation. It’s in his eloquent articulation of these tiny injustices and mundane frustrations that both the movie and the characters come alive.
And it’s to Baumbach’s credit that his empathy is evenly distributed among the characters. Nicole and Charlie both have moments of villainy and vulnerability. While Charlie’s lawyer (Alan Alda) enumerates the ways in which the law is slanted against the husband, Nicole’s lawyer (Laura Dern) brings down the house with a dynamite speech about the Christian parenthood template setting mothers up against the impossible perfection of the Virgin Mary while glorifying absentee fathers.
(Baumbach’s not so humble, though, that he doesn’t pause the film briefly to award Charlie, his proxy, a MacArthur genius grant.)
That’s the rub with Baumbach—his movies are urban, and urbane, to the extreme. The universality of the emotional truths is sometimes at odds with the narrow experience of the upper-class artist characters. Someone’s father is always being awarded or anthologized. Baumbach makes Whit Stillman look like Ken Loach’s plumber.
Baumbach’s collaborations with Greta Gerwig have a relatability and vivacity sometimes lacking in his solo projects. There’s plenty of middle ground between populist pandering and lamenting that your ex-wife is going to take half your genius grant money if you don’t agree to do prominent directing work in Los Angeles.
Credit to Baumbach for making an empathetic movie about antipathy. It’s a terrific showcase for the two leads, yet Johansson’s and Driver’s performances aren’t oppositional so much as they are inextricably entangled. Their characters can be pulled away from one another, but never entirely separated, and therein lie both the tragedy and the humanity.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver
Theater: Edina Cinema and Netflix, now playing