Love, consequences, and the custody battles therein collide in Marriage Story, the 13th film from director and writer Noah Baumbach. Like his 2017 comedy-drama The Meyerowitz Stories, Marriage Story is a Netflix-distributed film, and it’s even more heartwarming, witty, and winning this time around thanks to its year-topping performances from Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, and many more.
Marriage Story begins with something of a montage to establish its primary couple, Nicole and Charlie (played by Johansson and Driver). But in one of the film’s many creative flourishes, we’re introduced to these characters through a series of sharply edited scenes “written, directed, and voiced over” by the other person, effectively laying out the case for who these people are at their best.
But despite what the title may seem to imply, Marriage Story is actually about a long, drawn out divorce between the married couple, and more importantly, how this situation ultimately affects their eight-year-old son Henry, played by Azhy Robertson. Charlie wants his son to stay in New York, where the family has lived since he was born, but Nicole insists he must stay in Los Angeles, where he was born and where he actually has family.
Before the divorce lawyers have been summoned, Nicole amicably departs New York with Henry, and Charlie has no idea what amount of trouble this simple act will cause for him. There’s a gentle ferocity to what ensues next, as Charlie begins to realize how much is at stake if he doesn’t begin pouring all of his resources into fighting for the custody of his child, while Nicole deftly takes him to task for years of emotional trauma he inflicted while they were married, perhaps without ever noticing.
It’s hard to smile through some parts of Marriage Story, but moments of levity do come in the form of quirky set pieces involving Driver’s dysfunctional parenting style. As well as rapid flashes of wit and charm from the various side characters introduced throughout the film, including Wallace Shawn, a performer in Charlie’s theater troupe, and Martha Kelly, a comically unaffected evaluator who has to “observe” Charlie’s parenting skills.
These comedic scenes tend to be snuffed out by larger moments of intensity and despair, made even more wrenching because both of the characters in conflict are written to be authentically sympathetic. One of the film’s best scenes details how the fiery indignations held within Nicole and Charlie are finally able to come out blazing through their divorce attorneys, played by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, but this is only a stepping stone to what’s truly hiding underneath the surface of the couple’s painfully false veneer of civility when they meet to exchange hands with Henry.
It’s a wonderful reminder of how the true victim in these battles is the child, but at no point does the audience have good reason to turn on Charlie and Nicole completely. Like many of Baumbach’s best films, including Frances Ha, characters are made all the more likable by their flaws, despite having traits and habits many of us will find unusual at first. There’s a universal truth hidden in all of these relationships, and Baumbach’s script has just the right amount of autobiographical touch to breathe life and familiarity into the story without making the whole movie all about him.
Marriage Story has a long running time (136 minutes), which can be emotionally grueling and come off intentionally cynical on the part of Baumbach’s editing choices. But by the end, the pain truly leads somewhere special, and the experience becomes worth the effort. It’s odd to compare a movie of this nature to the heartstrings of Toy Story 3, but both films do share a similar undercurrent of warmth in the midst of loss. The comparison is of course taken even further by Randy Newman’s lively—yet somber—score, which evolves and takes on different forms as the story itself does the same.
As this is a film about artists who’ve fallen out of love, there are certainly some show-stopping scenes, including an extended sequence involving Driver at a late-night bar as he sings a monologue of his recent experiences. And Johansson in particular brandishes her best acting in years as she painstakingly reveals deeply repressed feelings to her lawyer in one of the most gracefully efficient expositional scenes I’ve ever seen put to film. For the performances alone, Marriage Story is a must-watch, because it demonstrates two actors almost fighting each other over who can have the best Oscar reel, and the results literally speak for themselves.
In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t really about a divorce, despite my earlier assertion. Not in the same way Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale tackled the subject, at least. It’s about how human beings handle baggage-layered conflict in all its forms. Through parenting, when a child refuses to behave. Through our careers, when we feel as if others are intentionally holding us back. And through the ripple effects of our actions on the people we love. It’s a compounding interest of drama, and it can only be solved by a willingness to sincerely say what we know we should say to the people who need to hear it.