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Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are devastating in the brilliant, brutal Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s outstanding new film turns divorce into a reminder of love’s many shades.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story.
Courtesy of TIFF
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every marriage harbors the seeds of its own destruction. People who stay married just figure out how to keep those seeds from blooming into chokeweeds. But maybe the reverse is true, too: Every divorce contains, in microcosm, what made the pair get together in the first place.

Which is why the seemingly ironic title of Marriage Story is sincere, even affectionate. Noah Baumbach is America’s foremost chronicler of rough-hewn and disintegrating family units, and in Marriage Story, he pries open one divorce to find the beating heart inside. It’s a showcase for stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as much as a triumph for Baumbach, recalling the wry humor and perfect pitch of Woody Allen’s best work, albeit with a touch less self-obsession (even though the couple seems at least partly, and probably inevitably, modeled on Baumbach’s divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013).

Marriage Story sees the end of a marriage as cause for both mourning and bittersweet comedy. The relationship is changing, but not ending. And the evolution is something to behold. To get a story like this right requires a sense of the comical and the absurd along with the devastating — and Marriage Story delivers.

Marriage Story is a funny, heartbreaking, knowing look at both the reality and absurdity of divorce

Marriage Story plays out like a duet, one we’re just happening to catch at the moment the key is changing and the discord hasn’t quite resolved. The movie begins with us hearing two sides of what seems like a happy marriage: Charlie (Driver) listing out all the things he loves about Nicole (Johansson), and Nicole returning the favor. How sweet!

Except they’re in a marriage counselor’s office, and Nicole is so pissed off at Charlie that she doesn’t even want to read her list out loud, which is gripped in her tightening hands. Nothing in particular, it transpires, is ripping Charlie and Nicole apart, and they’ve almost broken up before; friends in their theater group gossip amongst themselves about whether the split will stick this time.

It will. Charlie is a theater director and a true New Yorker, and his latest play is transferring to Broadway. Nicole was the star, and although they were married for years, she’s now moving from their home in New York to her hometown of Los Angeles to shoot a pilot. She’s bringing their eight-year-old son with her. And though that could have been just a temporary stay — show business couples do the bicoastal thing all the time — her decision to go finally pushed some long-simmering problems to boil over.

The New York-Los Angeles divide is a handy metaphor for the ensuing divorce. They’re two cities that aren’t really all that different, filled with people who have similar aspirations, a common language, and often shared family ties and histories. But New Yorkers and Angelenos alike can list the myriad reasons they can’t stand the other city with very little provocation. (Usually it boils down to the weather, the traffic, and, to quote a running joke in the film, “the space,” as in L.A. has it and New York does not.)

Same for Charlie and Nicole, who through conversations with relatives and lawyers (like Nicole’s hard-hitting attorney, a gloriously high-strung Laura Dern) unpack all the reasons they both got together and fell apart. There’s the meetings with the lawyers, who are far more combative than Charlie and Nicole are with each other; the home visits to determine custody; the family members who side with one or the other; the battles over who will live where, who gets to take what, what the shape of life will look like. Most of the comedy comes courtesy of the Kafkaesque machinations of the divorce industrial complex. Disentangling two lives requires a different kind of enmeshment in a legal and financial system that wants to suck them, or at least their banks accounts, dry along the way — a system focused on someone “winning” the divorce.

But nobody wins a divorce, just like nobody wins a wedding. Charlie and Nicole are both right about each other’s faults, and both right about each other’s good traits, too. In the middle of their split is still the core of their connection — if not as spouses, then still as partners, of a kind.

Marriage Story is almost uncannily authentic

Most anyone who’s been in a relationship of any length will find themselves wondering at some point in Marriage Story how Noah Baumbach got hold of their inner monologue’s transcripts. In movies like The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, he’s often presented the complications of marriages and divorces and shifting family dynamics as a rueful part of living, part of the dark comedy of existence. In driving a lance straight into this marriage, he opens up the wounds relationships leave for our examination.

That’s perhaps why Driver and Johansson’s scenes together are among the film’s most heartbreaking; that moment when someone says something you know they can never take back is gutting. But it’s in their individual scenes that you can really get a sense of how powerfully they’re performing, with ripples of emotion and energy revealing conflicts going on beneath the words they’re still just finding to narrate and re-narrate their lives. When you join your life to someone else, they become part of you, too; figuring out who you are in the aftermath requires looking backward and understanding the past in a new way.

As their story begins to resolve into its next phase, both Charlie and Nicole have scenes involving musical performances, both of which are backward looks at love and its abrasions. The numbers are very different, but they’re from the same show. So Marriage Story tunefully makes its point. Charlie and Nicole’s futures aren’t on the same path, but they’re still parallel, and not only because they have a son to raise together. For a long while, it seems as if their relationship will only end in flames. But it’s just a long moment, a phase in their marriage story, one more song in the show.

Marriage Story premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September and played at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, among others. It opens in theaters on November 6 and premieres on Netflix on December 6.