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Filmmaker Noah Baumbach's portrait of a marriage breaking up stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.

Wilson Webb/Netflix

  • Marriage Story
  • Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
  • Starring Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern and Ray Liotta
  • Classification R; 136 minutes

rating

4 out of 4 stars

There are few assignments I’ve been dreading more than reviewing Marriage Story. Not because the new movie from writer-director Noah Baumbach is bad – exactly the opposite. The filmmaker has made a wonderful movie: Sweet, funny, sad, insightful, and even beautiful – the latter quality not necessarily a given for Baumbach, an artist whose pre-Frances Ha productions felt frozen in an aesthetic I can only articulate as “static sludge.” Second to the already somehow nearly forgotten 2017 masterpiece The Meyerowitz Stories, Marriage Story is the director’s best work. But it is also his most prickly and painful. When offered the recent chance to view the work a second time after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere this past September, my stomach roiled and my head clanged.

Maybe it’s because the film’s central topic – the knotty nausea that is modern-day divorce – hits close to home. Maybe it’s because the mechanics of separation are so devastatingly realized here, and dissected to such a microscopically exacting legal degree, that any living person of any relationship status will feel tremendously uncomfortable taking it all in. Or maybe it’s because Baumbach is so skilled at revealing, and then revelling in, the most selfish shades of ourselves. Even when we are fully convinced that we are doing our very best, and for the very best reasons.

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Whatever the case, I’ll now offer my pre-emptive condolences to any couples who decide to watch Marriage Story together: Neither of you may survive the film. Its eagerness to peel back the ugliest of our emotional impulses will, inevitably, hurl questions at every intimate interaction you’ve ever had. This is a film, like the very worst cases of divorce, that will break people. But unlike some rock-bottom uncouplings, Marriage Story is not cruel. It is only honest. Which can be the freshest hell of all.

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Theatre director Charlie, played by Adam Driver, is dad to Henry (Azhy Robertson).

Wilson Webb/Netflix

It is funny, though, to see how Baumbach pulls the damn thing off. The filmmaker invites us to come for the charms of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, and somehow stay for the thorough evisceration of both. It is a bait-and-switch for the ages.

At the beginning of Marriage Story, we’re treated to exactly that: Tender twin narrations from theatre director Charlie (Driver) and actress Nicole (Johansson) as they each detail what has made their union such a successful one. Charlie loves being a dad. Nicole is a mother who plays (“really plays,” Charlie emphasizes). He is brilliant. She is brave. She gives great presents. They’re both competitive. Uh-huh. And very soon, the story of their marriage is over.

By opening his film at the tipping point of a partnership’s implosion, Baumbach makes the first of Marriage Story’s many smart decisions. There is no need to see how Charlie and Nicole’s bliss soured, exactly – only that it has. Briskly, the film moves into the middle of a bicoastal separation. Nicole wants to pursue her television career after pushing Charlie for years to move out to Los Angeles. Charlie wants to keep building his theatre reputation in New York, which has been aided by Nicole’s reluctant agreement to put her dreams on pause for these past few years. Neither seems to care much about their apartment or shared possessions. But there is the question of their young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and in which city he will reside. From there, things fall apart quickly, and magnificently so.

Nicole hires a shark of a lawyer (Laura Dern, in full Big Little Lies mode) who offers comfort and the opportunity, should Nicole desire, for cutthroat vengeance. Charlie, feeling that he has more of a moral leg to stand on even though that’s not actually the case, goes with a warm and fuzzy counsel (Alan Alda) fit for cuddles and cat naps. But it isn’t long before Charlie decides that he needs a legal carnivore (a terrifyingly funny Ray Liotta) to call his own. And then the fights, passive-aggression giving way to micro-aggressions before both parties succumb to pure aggression, take over everyone’s lives.

Nicole, played by Johansson, hires a shark of a lawyer (Laura Dern, left).

WILSON WEBB/Netflix

By the time the film cycles through the many starts and stops of the legal system, you’ll become so used to oscillating between laughing out loud and tearing your hair out that you, too, will become an expert proficient in the screeching language and twilight-zone reality of divorce. This is ugly, convulsive work, and Baumbach wants you to be unable to shake it off long after you leave the theatre (or living room, where most audiences will watch it via Netflix).

Key to the film’s success, especially when Baumbach leans into high-but-morbid comedy, are the performances. Driver and Johansson are just as skilled at engaging with Baumbach’s hyperspeed comedy early on – some of the first hour’s scenes recall the breakneck screwball of his 2015 blast Mistress America – as they are with tearing into each other with ferocious energy later on. (It’s in these moments when the best way, maybe the only way, to safely watch Marriage Story is to peek at the screen between the space of your trembling fingers.) Liotta, Dern and Alda, meanwhile, each get to chew scenery until their teeth rot. Divorce lawyers will either hate this movie because it’s so accurate or love it for the very same reason.

Since Marriage Story made the rounds on the film festival circuit this fall, the critical conversation has pivoted from celebrating the movie to questioning whether Baumbach is unfairly favouring one half of his couple over the other. It is true that, by an unofficial calculation, Charlie gets a slight edge of screen time. And he’s afforded one ultracathartic moment toward the end – a powerful rendition of Being Alive from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company – that Nicole simply never receives. But the film isn’t bleeding sympathy for him, either, with Baumbach spending just as much time on, say, Charlie’s extramarital affair as it does on any of the various wounds Nicole inflicts. And even then, if Baumbach ultimately does indeed identify with Charlie, misdeeds and all, then should that sink the film? Life, as Marriage Story illustrates, isn’t fair. Neither is what goes up onscreen in a movie.

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Still, audiences and armchair psychiatrists will spend all manner of time analyzing how Baumbach’s own split from his actress wife Jennifer Jason Leigh spilled into Marriage Story. There is something worthy, or at least curiously titillating, to that pursuit. And it can’t help but be noticed in where, ultimately, the film leaves Charlie and Nicole. But everyone’s time will be better spent thinking less about what memories Baumbach is replaying and justifying here, and more about what a completely absorbing and devastating portrait of modern desire and responsibility the filmmaker has wrought.

Just don’t ask me to ever watch it again.

Marriage Story opens Nov. 22 in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal; Nov. 29 in Vancouver, Edmonton, Victoria, and Calgary; and Dec. 6 on Netflix

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