Love is a battlefield for the antagonists of Noah Baumbach’s forensic dissection of a showbiz couple’s acrimonious divorce – partly drawn from his own split from Jennifer Jason Leigh. Boasting arguably career-best performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson and a literate script that fizzes with zingers and invective, it’s the kind of sophisticated adult drama we see all too seldom nowadays
Charlie (Driver) is a New York director who has a child, and a theatre company, with actress wife Nicole (Johansson). Nicole was a big film star back in the day, but since meeting Charlie and becoming a mother to Henry (Azhy Robertson), now eight she’s been content to live in her husband’s shadow.
Yet Nicole wants more: “a piece of the earth that’s hers”, which comes in the form of a TV pilot shooting in her home town of LA. How about heading west for a bit and pursuing her dreams for a change? But Charlie says no, unwittingly condemning them to a collision course full of mediation meetings, custody hearings and courtroom confrontations. There are no winners in this war, just casualties – especially when sharks like Nora (Laura Dern) and Jay (Ray Liotta) are involved, cutthroat lawyers who have no compunction about ripping each other’s clients to shreds provided they’re paid $750 an hour to do so.
There are moments in Marriage Story when the pain is excruciating – acutely so during the extended scene in which a clear-the-air confab descends into a no-holds-barred bout of bitter recriminations. (“You gaslighted me!” “I wish you were dead!”) Yet Baumbach is too astute a writer not to mine humour from even the bleakest of scenarios. Witness the scene in which Nicole’s mother (Julie Hagerty) and sibling (Merritt Weaver) are reluctantly dragooned into serving Charlie divorce papers, or a priceless set-piece involving a blank-faced family court evaluator (Martha Kelly) sent to observe how son and father interact.
Baumbach even makes room for a brace of numbers from Stephen Sondheim’s Company in a film that finds exquisite depth and poignancy in the everyday minutiae of a drawnout legal imbroglio. (You will see nothing sadder this awards season than the sight of Driver – dressed, natch, as the Invisible Man – dragging an exhausted Robertson around uncaring Los Angeles in the fruitless hope of securing him some Halloween candy.) Throw in Randy Newman’s rueful score and 35mm visuals from Robbie Ryan that savour every last close-up, and the result is a Marriage you won’t want to end.