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A Couple Faces The Painful End Of The Line In 'Marriage Story'

Breakin' up is hard to do in Noah Baumbach's <em>Marriage Story,</em> starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.
Wilson Webb
Breakin' up is hard to do in Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.

It's no coincidence that when Charlie (Adam Driver) takes his young son out for Halloween in the new Noah Baumbach film Marriage Story, he dresses as The Invisible Man.

Charlie is separated from his wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), who is living in California with their son, Henry. Charlie still lives in New York, where Nicole and Henry lived too, until they didn't. So now, Charlie comes to LA when he can to see Henry and participate in the divorce that Nicole has initiated in what is now her home state. Charlie wants Henry to live with him; Nicole wants Henry to live with her; Charlie doesn't want to be in LA; Nicole doesn't want to be in New York. This is bad math. It is sad math.

For his Halloween visit, Charlie has gone to a lot of trouble to get the costume supervisor at his theater company to work up a Frankenstein costume for Henry, but when he gets to LA, it turns out that Henry wants to be a ninja like his LA cousins. Nicole shrugs, because she can't make the kid want to be Frankenstein. Charlie is frustrated because he went to a lot of trouble. It becomes clear that everyone can't trick-or-treat together because of the tension between the parents, so Nicole says she'll go out with Henry and her family first and then Charlie can take him out separately after. Where does a dad who doesn't know LA take a kid trick-or-treating? That's his problem to solve.

It's easy at this point to feel sympathy for Charlie — all he wants is to see his kid. He wants to be a good and present parent. He got a costume together and came all the way to California, and now the kid wants a store-bought ninja get-up. Nicole could come off cold here. But then it turns out that Henry really doesn't want to go out twice. He wants to be a ninja. He doesn't want to be dragged around for a "second Halloween." Nicole knows what the kid wants, she refuses to apologize for supporting his desire to see his cousins, and she's right that she can't argue with Henry's conviction that the ninja costume is better because it costs more. (He doesn't count labor costs. What kid does?)

And so you get the remarkable image of Charlie taking Henry out, driving around, desperately seeking a trick-or-treat-friendly neighborhood where people are still awake. And while Henry is still a ninja, Charlie is The Invisible Man, covered up by bandages, peering from behind sunglasses, with Driver's broad body wrapped in a suit.

What's extraordinary about Marriage Story is that everyone in this story is right, based on their position in the situation. Charlie is right, Nicole is right and Henry is right. And they are all hurting. Baumbach has come about as close as you can get to telling a wrenching divorce story with devastation but no villainy. Everything comes from that sad math. The arrangement in which both parents could be with each other and their kid has simply run out of time; it doesn't work anymore. What comes next will be awful for at least someone, if not for everyone.

The sturdiness of the story begins with the choice to open the film with a long montage in which Nicole and Charlie, in voice-overs, explain what they love — what they once loved — about each other. Their lists are good lists of things to love about a partner: They consider each other excellent parents, she knows when to push him and when not to, he makes people feel special, she gives great gifts, he cries easily. This structural decision means that whenever you're tempted to give up on either of them because of their behavior at a particular moment, you have already been steeped in their shared decency and devotion to their shared child. The worse they behave — and they both do, at times — the more you realize the emotional costs of this process. The costs of this bad, sad math.

The meticulous fairness of the script is remarkable. Because Charlie is the one who is separated from Henry more of the time, he has more opportunities to be in pain — thus we feel for him. But in a long, beautifully written monologue in the first scene that she spends with her smooth-talking lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), Nicole explains how she fell in love with Charlie, how she began to feel diminished and how she decided to leave her marriage — and it all makes sense. And despite Driver's portrayal of Charlie as a fiercely loving person, it seems entirely believable.

The aggressive lawyers played by Dern and Ray Liotta are the closest things the film has to bad guys, but they both say things to their clients that are fundamentally, unpleasantly true. Charlie originally wants to manage it all without lawyers, but once you come to understand how intimidated Nicole sometimes feels in verbal altercations with him (he has just landed a MacArthur "genius" grant), you know Nora isn't wrong that Nicole will be at a disadvantage if they just negotiate. There's a suggestion that Charlie would have been better off with a less aggressive attorney, like the one played by Alan Alda, but it's easy to understand why he feels that once Nicole has Nora, he — as he puts it — needs a jerk of his own. (He does not say "jerk.")

This relatively unadorned story could wind up feeling like a filmed play, but Baumbach's commitment to coming in close to faces, particularly Driver's and Johansson's, is sneakily effective. The tendency of conversations between Charlie and Nicole to escalate from polite to tense to furious to, in one case, almost incoherent in their fury springs logically from their closely examined eyes and their tentative, layered expressions. Julie Hagerty as Nicole's mother is both wonderful and awful in the way that parents observing divorces often can be — she's well-versed in the language of emotional maturity but also in the fundamentally unhelpful tactics of the Are You Sure You Want A Divorce? kind of parent. There's regrettably little for Merritt Wever to do as Nicole's sister, but in an early scene critical to the progress of the divorce, she introduces a comic lightness that recurs now and then, surprisingly, to let the audience breathe.

But in the end, Marriage Story turns on the performances from Driver and Johansson, both of whom are as good as they've ever been. She is kind with an earned edge, resentful but also empathetic as she begins to believe that this will end worse for Charlie than it will for her. And Driver gives Charlie a haughtiness that's brittle enough to make it clear why Nicole doesn't like arguing with him, but also a genuine commitment to doing the right thing and an unending hope that this doesn't have to be as bad as it is. He commits to moments when Charlie is awful and moments when Charlie is extraordinarily tender, and it's one of his best performances. The awards it will likely win will be deserved.

An additional note: It would be unfair, I think, to say too much in a review about the role that the Stephen Sondheim musical Company plays in the unfolding of the film. But suffice it to say that Company is about a single person coming to believe and have faith that marriage can be beautiful in spite of its evident agonies. And to transpose it into this setting, where married people learn that marriage has agonies in spite of its evident beauty, is quite brilliant.

Because Marriage Story is about the terrible process of a bad-math divorce, it would be easy to see in it a bleakness that would make it uninteresting. But the performances are so good and the story is so complex that it is, in the end, startlingly and deeply humane. "Who was in the wrong here?" you might find yourself asking as you get to the end. Neither of them, is the answer, and both of them.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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