You can say a lot of things about the films of Noah Baumbach, but calling them accessible is not one of them. The director of Kicking and Screaming, Margot at the Wedding, and Frances Ha has made a name for himself as an independent filmmaker by putting complicated, often impenetrable stories into the world. Even though his latest, Marriage Story, is as complicated as ever, it’s so painfully relatable that it may be his ticket to Oscar gold.
Ironically, the film is not about a marriage, but rather the dissolution of one. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actor, and Charlie (Adam Driver), a theater director, are in the process of getting divorced. After starring in Charlie’s plays in New York for many years, Nicole has decided to break out on her own and try her hand at television in Los Angeles, a desire that was one of many cracks that led to their separation.
Though at first the two agree to an amicable split without lawyers, Nicole soon hires Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a vaunted divorce attorney. Charlie fights back with high-powered lawyers of his own, and the battle advances well past what either one of them could have imagined possible. They have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), but for the most part they keep the unpleasantries between the two of them instead of using Henry as a pawn.
As Baumbach, who wrote and directed the film, shrewdly observes throughout, there are no winners in the divorce process, and both sides can be considered good or bad depending on the day. In the case of Nicole and Charlie, there’s no clear-cut reason for them to divorce. Perhaps they got married too young, or Charlie didn’t listen enough to Nicole’s needs, or any number of other reasons.
The story is obviously personal for Baumbach, and he goes into excruciating and heartbreaking detail about the months-long progression of finalizing the divorce. While there’s never any hope that Nicole and Charlie would get back together, there are small acts of compassion throughout that demonstrate that neither one of them has lost their humanity in spite of the ugliness around, and sometimes between, them.
The film is obviously heavy on drama, but comedy makes its way in every now and again. Charlie’s choices for lawyers — a bombastic Ray Liotta and a timid Alan Alda — inspire laughs with their demeanor, although usually in a dark humor kind of way. Nicole and Charlie also find ways to laugh, sometimes together, but more often separately.
The film is a master class in acting on almost all fronts. While Johansson and Driver’s characters are at odds for most of the film, the two actors have great chemistry, and they easily demonstrate the love Nicole and Charlie once had, and still do have to some degree. Dern plays a slightly toned-down version of her character from Big Little Lies to equal effect. Supporting turns by Liotta, Alda, Merritt Wever, and Julie Hagerty make the story hum.
Baumbach has finally made a movie that can be appreciated by most moviegoers without sacrificing quality or toning down his acerbic nature. Now that’s he proven this ability, it’ll be extremely interesting to see what he does in his next film, which he’s co-writing with his longtime partner Greta Gerwig. That film? Barbie.
Marriage Story debuts on Netflix on Friday, December 6.