In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.
Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.
It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.
Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.
Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.