Marriage Story

The plot follows the lengthy divorce of Charlie and Nicole Barber as they battle for custody of their son.

During a scene in Noah Baumbach’s newest film, “Marriage Story,” an attorney tells Adam Driver’s character, Charlie Barber, “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.” Over his career, Baumbach has made a living off portraying film characters at their worst, most dysfunctional or most insecure.

This line presents the possibility that Baumbach will go back to the same well of productivity, mining awkwardness for comedy and framing misanthropy as inevitable. Instead, he created the most heart-wrenching film of the year, delivering more emotional weight and reality to an audience in 147 minutes than some directors do in a career.

“Marriage Story” follows the lengthy divorce of Charlie and Nicole Barber as they battle for custody of their son, despite residences on different sides of the country. Charlie is a demanding, genius theater director with a tendency to overlook others’ emotions. Nicole is his muse — a former child actress turned theater performer who feels forgotten in her own home. 

Their relationship clearly draws a parallel to Baumbach’s own divorce from Jenniffer Jason Leigh. Baumbach goes so far as to create a fictionalized “Fast Times At Ridgemont High”-style film that jumpstarts Nicole’s career. But those machinations only add to the weight of the film and create something both uplifting and devastating.

Driver gives the performance of the year as Charlie, bringing an emotional depth and artifice-shattering realism to the character. Driver is arguably the greatest actor of his generation, delivering consistently evolving characters in movies by the greatest working filmmakers, and “Marriage Story” is his crowning achievement, allowing him the opportunity to take the idiosyncratic approach he brings to every performance and channel it through a film worthy of his talents as a leading man. Driver may be the only actor who can carry a “Star Wars” movie, a Baumbach movie, a zombie comedy and a political docudrama all in the same year, and his performance in “Marriage Story” is certainly worthy of Academy Award recognition.

On the other side of the divorce battle, Scarlett Johansson delivers arguably the best performance of her career as Nicole. Whereas Charlie is constantly withholding, incapable of recognizing their relationship’s flaws, Nicole communicates her isolation and anger subtly, creating a challenge that Johansson handles beautifully. Her role in the film is to act as a ship without a sail, always at the whims of either Charlie, her mother (Julie Hagerty), her son, Henry (Azhy Robertson,) or her divorce attorney, Nora (Laura Dern).

Johansson and Dern’s scenes particularly stand out as Dern gives yet another laudatory performance in the film. Nora acts with a constant artifice of kindness, covering a ruthless interior she uses to brutal effect. In each of her scenes, Dern navigates around every other character like an animal stalking her prey with coldblooded intensity, all masked by her calming charm.

Also of note in the cast are Alan Arkin and Ray Liotta as Charlie’s divorce attorneys, both lending an enhanced sense of paternal professionalism to Charlie’s life. Arkin and Liotta are a perfect combination of Charlie’s dueling personalities: Arkin with a world-weary exterior covering up a softer heart, and Liotta embodying competitive anger and knowledgeable sarcasm.

With all that said, Baumbach may be the film’s true star by creating a drama almost unlike any in recent memory. Baumbach has previously explored the topic of divorce in a prior film, “The Squid and the Whale,” yet this effort feels wholeheartedly different, primarily because of his own experiences informing the text. “The Squid and the Whale” is another semi-autobiographical tale, but this time, it’s about Baumbach’s own parents’ divorce.

The main difference between the two films is the sheer amount of vitriol in “The Squid and the Whale.” While an incredible achievement, the film is always confined to an adolescent’s point of view, expressing pure rage without any sense of understanding. “Marriage Story,” on the other hand, is comprised of understanding, telling the story of two people who can’t help but love each other.

“Marriage Story” is the kind of film that will interrupt an intense argument about custody rights for the characters to order lunch; in the lead up to one particularly hostile moment, two characters can be overhead discussing John Legend concert tickets. All of these facts lead the viewer back to the idea that while these two characters’ lives have come to a crossroads, the outside world continues without any care for their own grief. The only person capable of feeling Charlie’s pain is Nicole and vice versa. That’s the key to the film.

In that sense, the “Marriage Story” would make a remarkable double feature with 2013’s “Before Midnight.” Both films are portraits of characters incapable of feeling happiness together despite love for each other, but they tackle the subject in vastly different ways. While “Before Midnight” theorizes that discontent is inevitable and all things end, “Marriage Story” pivots to create an argument for love in the midst of the disaster that Nicole and Charlie’s relationship has caused.

Over its last hour, Baumbach mines their relationship for all that its worth, delivering scene after scene of brilliant performance coupled with feelings of anger, pain, love and regret. In one scene, Charlie stands isolated, publicly confronting his regret, while Baumbach subtly moves the camera to show Charlie’s loneliness in what might be the best moment of Driver’s career.

Baumbach’s filmography has always felt expertly derivative, drawing consistent comparisons to Woody Allen or Albert Brooks. From “Kicking and Screaming” to “Frances Ha” to “Meyerowitz Stories,” Baumbach’s work has always wondered about the hypocrisies of adulthood, parenthood and self-sufficiency. A Baumbach film always asks how expectations and reality contradict one another. With “Marriage Story,” he’s found the perfect evocation of that theme: a love story about the minutiae of divorce. Given that dichotomy, he created his ultimate masterpiece giving audiences the most heartwarming and heartbreaking film of 2019.

Contact Chris Carr at carrtc@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.