There’s an inevitability to Marriage Story, a feeling of something like gravity: all-encompassing and firm, easy to forget it’s there as it slowly repels instead of attracts. Perhaps it’s due to director Noah Baumbach’s intimate direction and script, which, despite its wrenching subject matter, plays like a rom-com. There’s sharp dialogue, rich with double entendre and implied history, that’s delivered with an energy that makes it a real shame that it’s in the service of people falling apart, not coming together. Lines layer on top of and under one another, delivered with the easy rhythm of people who know each other intimately. The camera gets close, and we get to see them look at each other in ways that words fail to describe.
At the start of Marriage Story, the relationship is already over. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) Barber are seeing a mediator sometime after their decision to separate, expressing a desire to negotiate their transition to separate lives amicably and disrupt the life of their young son Henry as little as possible. They’re warned about how hostile the process can be so want to safeguard against the toxicity that normally comes with a divorce. They decide to not get lawyers. All of those well-meaning notions eventually crumble as Nicole and Charlie, seeking closure, get a divorce and succumb to the animosity and suspicion the legal system is built to breed. Charlie, a theater director, slowly realizes Nicole, an actress, wants to leave New York with their son and start over in Los Angeles.
Marriage Story isn’t necessarily a tragedy about a relationship; it’s about the long legal process we call divorce and how it can poison whatever noble intentions the involved parties had about remaining amicable. “This system rewards ugly behavior,” star divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern, maintaining almost all of her Big Little Lies energy) says to Nicole at one point. “At the end of this process,” Charlie’s lawyer, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta, the perfect foil for Dern), tells him, “you’re going to hate me.”
It cannot be understated how good Driver and Johansson are as the Barbers. While Marriage Story is about divorce, it is not consumed by it. Instead, it slips between tones and moods, much the way people do even during the darkest times in their lives. The Barbers are funny and wry and caring and full of deep, inexpressible love and contempt. Each delivers long, lived-in monologues to other characters as they wander a room, leave the frame, or burst into song. A blowout argument shifts sympathies back and forth as Charlie and Nicole plumb their shared history for grievances to wield as weapons, some more devastating than others.
Marriage Story isn’t a joyless film. It’s clever and witty, with plenty of jokes about California, thanks to the bi-coastal tension of its central pair. It also co-stars Wallace Shawn (Vizzini in The Princess Bride). He’s not terribly important to the plot, but every time I saw him on-screen, it was hard not to shout “inconceivable!” (Honestly, that’s a good response for some of the behavior in this film.) Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever, who respectively play Nicole’s mom and sister Cassie, are frequently hilarious as they struggle with their familial duty to support Nicole in spite of their overwhelming fondness for Charlie.
One of Marriage Story’s biggest successes lies in its straightforwardness. It’s not a story out to change how you think of relationships or marriage. It strives for honesty, even if it’s cliché. Charlie and Nicole struggle through the same things couples in countless relationships learn the hard way, like how all arguments are the same argument had different ways, how the balance between each partner’s fulfillment must be carefully minded, and how the problems that can bring about the end are all there in the beginning.
The hope of Marriage Story, then, is not ‘til death do them part. Rather, it’s the dignity of any good ending, one that gives you the clarity to understand the meaning of everything that came before it.