Marriage Story is about divorce. The title’s ironic, but the movie is not. It doesn’t perch itself above the fracas looking down on it, shaking its head, “tsk, tsk.” Instead, it jumps head first into the fray, dumping us right in the middle of the confusion and awkwardness that accompanies the painful process of a couple’s decoupling.
The film’s director Noah Baumbach is a talented auteur with a unique voice. He’s confident and assured in his storytelling. I kinda hate his movies. He traffics in the awkwardness of life and gleefully portrays its messiness. There is a point to it, but his oeuvre is hard to watch. Marriage Story pumps the brakes a bit on the white-hot embarrassment tour of his earlier films and is all the better for it.
Sophie (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) were happily (maybe?) married once, but as the movie begins–with a lovely he said/she said sequence where they describe what they loved about each other in the first place for, as it turns out, a therapy session—they’re already separated, emotionally, if not legally. What follows is an almost step-by-step deconstruction of the divorce process, showing the complicated and sometimes ridiculous laws that have to be negotiated and the emotional toll that comes with trying to legally separate, especially when a child—in this case their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson)—is involved. What we find is that even the best intentions can devolve spectacularly, especially when lawyers are involved.
The law angle allows the movie to bring in two veteran actors, Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, who burst into this mostly low-key drama, demolishing their scenes with the fiery personalities of their characters as they play Sophie and Charlie’s lawyers, respectively. Ray Liotta does his unblinking tough guy stuff that he does so well, but it’s Laura Dern who steals the show. She’s fierce, a master manipulator, funny and lively before crawling under your skin. You could imagine people happily lining up to be manipulated by her.
The film’s patient rolling out of the divorce process means that we learn about the bizarre legal loopholes of separation. Charlie, we learn, has to pay not only for his own lawyer but also for 30% of Sophie’s lawyer’s fees (California law, y’know), and a great, wince-inducing sequence revolves around Sophie trying to serve Charlie their divorce papers, which she can’t, by law, so she asks her sister to do it, who’s understandably anxious about the task. The scene escalates with her sister nervously hopping in and out of the scene, sometimes literally, trying to find the perfect moment to hand him the papers. Eventually dropping the papers and running out of the room, the scene increases in tension as a piece of paper that will irrevocably change lives forever hides in plain sight waiting to be noticed by Charlie. Humor, drama, and tension mingle, elevating a serious moment into a comedy of the absurd.
Baumbach captures the irrational minutia of life, the opacity of our interactions, with clarity. After the divorce papers are served, Charlie awkwardly stays for dinner, not realizing Sophie expects him to stay in a hotel that night. When he does leave, Sophie clumsily offers, “Sorry again,” as if she’s simply bumped into him or something. Charlie’s response? “Thanks.” What else is there to say?
The complicated emotions and reasons that lead to divorce are revealed here like peeling back layers of an onion. Except, clarity doesn’t accompany the reveal of each new layer, just more confusion. Did Sophie really hate her life during marriage? Was Charlie really self-involved? On and on it goes. What was real and what they convinced themselves of after the fact intertwine into a hopeless knot that can never truly be untied. It all leads to an astonishing sequence, a confrontation between Sophie and Charlie that draws its power from this confusion, the way that pure emotion usurps communication. They try to hash things out calmly and rationally but there’s too much history, too much pent up anger. The conversation intensifies, subtly, quickly, and suddenly the most horrible things are said, bile that’s been stored up and released in an anguished torrent of emotion: Love and hate, hopelessly connected.
Scarlett Johannson’s and Adam Driver’s performances are moving and complex throughout, but the way they play this confrontation is an undeniable highlight. Both actors channel palpable rage and torment. Rather than coming off as awards bait grandstanding, though, their handling of the scene renders it so sadly relatable it becomes astoundingly upsetting.
The movie is a downer, but it’s not misery porn. Baumbach makes sure to offset the sadness with wise observation and humor. Sure, there’s that awkwardness that we snortle at in uncomfortable recognition, but then there are the witty turns of phrases, the running gags that pop up consistently. And it all ends quietly, on a graceful sigh of hopeful resignation. An act of tying somebody else’s shoe becomes an act of an undefinable connection.
While Baumbach holds a mirror up to ourselves again, it’s a little less anxiety-inducing this time around. Marriage Story is smart, observant, and empathetic. It dilutes its inherent sadness and awkwardness with a wise, world-weariness that can only come from experience. There’s no pat, “Life is still worth it” explicitly thrown in at the end here, but it’s implied more than ever.