Y’know, did not expect divorce to be so funny.
Going into Noah Baumbach’s new Netflix feature, "Marriage Story," you’re primed to squeeze in a scrunched-face cry or three. Especially based on the trailer, which shows stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in alternating states of true love and desperate animus. And also, you know, based on the fact that real-life divorce can be hard, messy and painful.
The press run-up to "Marriage Story" made clear that the movie’s title is a bit of a misnomer — this is more of a separation story. Baumbach’s well-drawn portrait of a transforming relationship dispenses with glitz. It feels like quiet, Vietnam-era domestic cinema. Glitz? Glamour? This ain’t an MGM musical; it’s a place for heated conversations in beige apartments.
The Netflix movie, which screened at Austin Film Festival in October and has played in select Austin theaters this week, begins streaming Dec. 6.
When "Marriage Story" introduces us to theater director Charlie and actor Nicole (played by Driver and Johansson), they take turns telling us everything they love about the other. Their days in New York seem to be happy ones of artistic collaboration and raising their son, Henry (played by Azhy Robertson). We see an everyday life lived with tenderness. Charlie says Nicole will execute his craziest ideas, and Nicole says Charlie takes in all her moods steadily. Charlie loves parenting through the hard parts; Nicole loves to play, really play.
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Except all these small affections, we find out, are just part of a facilitated mediation as the couple separates. All things go.
Baumbach refuses to follow so simple a game plan as he said/she said for the rest of the film. We see some parts of this heartbreaking story from just one person’s vantage. Nicole, weary from a marriage of lopsided compromise and living back with her family in Los Angeles, tearfully bursts when she goes to see an attorney (played by Laura Dern). In a heartbreaking monologue, things she’s left unspoken drain out: "I got smaller," and "I was his aliveness."
Charlie feels blindsided by divorce papers. Communication breaks down. A once-amicable split becomes fraught with fear and nerves. Henry is caught in the middle, and his affections become a thermometer in this cold war.
Almost imperceptibly, Baumbach retreats into Charlie’s eyes, a contracting life of isolation. As Nicole starts to find more and more of herself, she feels more and more distant to him and to the viewer. It’s disorienting messaging at times, as the lines of the filmmaker’s sympathies blur. The subject matter of "Marriage Story" is personal for Baumbach — inspired in part by his split from Jennifer Jason Leigh — so intent’s a question that nags in the viewer’s mind.
Driver’s compelling oddness sings when placed in a movie that feels like it could easily have starred Dustin Hoffman or Richard Dreyfuss 40 years ago. Johansson, meanwhile, is on a hot streak of charismatic turns (including her never-better performance as a Nazi-resisting mother in "Jojo Rabbit"). In "Marriage Story," she’s warm and winning.
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And our two prize fighters wouldn’t go as long in the ring without the stacked supporting cast. Dern, in particular, almost walks away with the movie. Her divorce attorney character, Nora, is sharply observed, a woman who thinks red stilettos are schlubby and can probably quote a TED Talk at the drop of a hat. She’s always ready with comforting insincerity for her client and the argument that’ll break the most painful bone for her opponent.
Ray Liotta and Alan Alda score as Charlie’s lawyers, one a courtroom puma and one a courtroom cat toy. Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty, as Nicole’s nervous sister and chipper mother, keep this divorce tale as hilarious as it can be.
This is not "War of the Roses." Driver and Johannson nail the experience of two well-intentioned people acting out a familiarity that doesn’t fit anymore. It chafes until it’s too much to bear. Poison has to come out eventually, and Baumbach expels it in a raw, talky fight scene that would make Richard Linklater quake in his observational boots.
Life’s not clean on either side of the screen in "Marriage Story." But even when it’s messy, Baumbach’s found a way to make all sad tears and funny tears equally welcome.