Marriage Story begins with Charlie (Adam Driver) listing the things he most appreciates about Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). Then it’s Nicole’s turn. She recites Charlie’s most admirable attributes. In each instance, a montage plays out against the voiceover, showing mundane moments that reflect the descriptions: games are played, work is done, pizza is eaten. These are the plain particulars of two people existing together, bonded by a pledge. Among many inspirations of Noah Baumbach, writer-director of Marriage Story, is opening the film with these dueling monologues of warmth and appreciation, then immediately revealing them to be lies. The praise isn’t genuine, but is instead the result of an exercise proscribed by a marriage counselor seen by Charlie and Nicole. As the story starts, they are on the brink of divorce. It will only get rougher.
Baumbach launched his career with Kicking and Screaming, which is one of the era’s spate of films that aimed to captured the anxious aimlessness of Generation X just as they started building their collective version of adulthood. Since then, Baumbach has increasingly built an oeuvre that revolves around the corrosive behaviors people carelessly inflict on one another (with the occasional Greta Gerwig influence disrupting the pattern). With its intense focus on the brutalizing process of divorce, Marriage Story is Baumbach’s creative pulse juiced to heart attack levels.
In the film, Charlie and Nicole progress from a strained but amicable split to pronounced emotional warfare, partially goaded on by the legal apparatus required to end their romantic partnership. Baumbach’s script effectively lays out the way largely innocuous encounters are invariably stored up to use as ammunition against the other partner. The couple sits at separate tables in court, their lawyers tossing out examples of past transgressions like Molotov cocktails from a well-stocked shelf. And private conversations between the splitting man and wife are similarly filled with the weight of anger and resentment. The divorce is the equivalent of a snowball growing in size as it rolls downhill, but its increasing mass is from barbed wire rather than wispy flakes. Both Driver and Johannson play the fury and pain with wounding conviction.
And yet Marriage Story is also very funny. Baumbach has mastered the tone rarely seen onscreen since mid-period Woody Allen, the glorious time of Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Drama and comedy intermingle as freely as they do in real life, divisions between them hazy or even nonexistent. Some of the biggest laughs are filled with a rueful inner truth. The schism cut undercut the material or create a disconnect. Instead, there’s an added poignancy to the film. The film feels more accurate because Baumbach isn’t pushing the material into an established mold. He finds the hard, contradictory truths of the scenario and shares them with a clear-eyed exactitude. What could be ruthless becomes heartrending art.