There’s an uncomfortable and strangely acerbic moment in writer/director Noah Baumbach’s, Marriage Story, where Adam Driver’s character demonstrates an ongoing joke he has with his son, in which he mimics cutting himself with a small box cutter knife on his key chain. It’s a gag he’d been doing for years, except this time, he tries it after recently going through a separation. As a result, he unintentionally slices himself in the arm. Suddenly, he’s bleeding profusely, wandering around his apartment in a daze, dressing his wound with napkins, before passing out on the floor. The scene not only demonstrates the movie’s darkly comic underpinnings, it’s also a parable of its inherent tragedy — even with the best of intentions, when overwhelmed by circumstance (like divorce), we can all lose control and end up face down on the floor.
Unlike Kramer Vs. Kramer, which clearly favors Dustin Hoffman’s predicament, there aren’t any villains in Marriage Story (unless you count the lawyers). In Noah Baumbach’s universe, both parties lose something precious. Most likely based on his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach’s film is amusing, but also insightful and vitriolically charged; it’s difficult not to feel the gut-wrenching pain of a family separating. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (The Favourite) enhances the emptiness of the rooms, surgically opening us to the characters’ lives. This is virtuosic and humanistic filmmaking. It’s also one of Baumbach’s best films to date. He’s always specialized in human frailty, usually focusing on East Coast intellects who are so busy tending their carefully crafted egos they forget about their souls. From his coming of age confessional about being raised by two narcissistic parents in The Squid and The Whale, to a lacerating profile of an affected writer visiting her sister in Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach has a knack for exposing our penchant for self-absorption, and in doing so, reflecting our struggle to find empathy. It’s perfect fodder for a divorce story.
Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is an avant-garde director on Broadway. His wife, Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson), is an actress. For years they worked at the same theater company. They also have an 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Marriage Story opens with Charlie and Nicole in couples’ therapy, obviously getting nowhere. The end is near. Nicole moves to Los Angeles to star in a TV pilot, where she stays in her childhood home with her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Wever). When Charlie visits them in Los Angeles and is swiftly served divorce papers, he’s plunged into a world of confusion and betrayal. They were going to do this on their own, without lawyers. No such luck. Nicole enlists a no-holds-barred attorney (Laura Dern, in a lacerating performance), and in desperation, Charlie follows suit, first with a mild-mannered Bert (a hilarious Alan Alda), then with an expensive, calculating shark, Jay (Ray Liotta, in full mafia mode).
Once the lawyers enter the picture, Charlie and Nicole’s divorce takes on a toxic life of its own. Harmless situations and statements become lethal ammunition in the courtroom. Meanwhile, their son twists in the middle, gravitating toward his mother to seek emotional shelter. Up to this point, both Charlie and Nicole appear drawn, almost in shock, as they try to navigate these new, treacherous waters. But later, in a stripped down, uncompromisingly potent scene, they unleash all their scalding damnations to each other.
These are the right actors for a movie with so much emotional vicissitude. Johansson does a great job of maintaining composure while suppressing years of resentment for paying attention to her husband’s needs, but not her own. But the real surprise is Adam Driver. With a hangdog expression and existential uncertainty etched on his face, he’s a walking, talking open wound. His performance is revelatory here. This may be the film that sees the great Noah Baumbach finally get the attention and recognition he deserves. The filmmaker’s stories might be a little provincial for the masses, but his themes are universal, and during a time where empathy is in short supply, he reminds us of its importance.
After a limited theater run, Marriage Story debuts on Netflix, Friday, December 6.