It is hard not to think of one’s own marriage, and those of others close to you, when watching Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film Marriage Story. The detailed way Baumbach captures the highs and lows of married life is fascinating to behold. Similar to how his protagonists study each other, the film observes the subtle nuances that come from intimately knowing a person better than you know yourself.
The notion of self is something that Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) have lost but are reluctant admit. Living in New York, the pair have made a comfortable life for themselves and their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Charlie is a famed playwright who has just landed a prestigious grant that will fund his projects for the next five years. An accomplished actress in her own right, though best known for her work in Charlie’s plays, Nicole has scored a pilot for a show that will be shooting in her home city of Los Angeles.
Thinking Nicole’s L.A. excursion will be temporary, Charlie is caught off-guard when Nicole files for divorce. Wanting to step out of from under Charlie’s shadow and spread her own wings again, Nicole sees Los Angeles as the perfect place for her and Henry to start a new life. With Charlie unwilling to leave New York, the divorce quickly spirals to toxic levels when lawyers (Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta) enter the picture.
Offering a blisteringly honest portrayal of the stress and pain divorce causes, Baumbach masterfully forces us to wallow in the couple’s uncomfortableness. Taking us through every step of the divorce proceedings, Baumbach’s film exposes how a system originally designed to protect mothers has lost it way. Not only do the courts reward bad behaviour and lawyer’s theatrics; but often do not account for the intangibles that factor into the best and worst aspects of married life.
In dissecting Nicole and Charlie’s annoying traits, Baumbach reaches a level of intimacy that feels authentic. Johansson and Driver deliver the monologue heavy dialogue with a passion that is heartbreaking and mesmerizing. By time we reach the end of Marriage Story one feels as if they have just gone through the divorce themselves. However, even when we are emotionally drained the film offers a sense of hope. Life will go on and everything will be okay, one just needs time to let the deep emotional wounds to heal.