- 19 Nov 19
Sublime divorce tale from Noah Baumbach
In 2005, Noah Baumbach used memories of his parents’ contentious divorce in the brilliantly observed, bleakly funny The Squid And The Whale. Fourteen years later, the director’s own recent divorce from actress and collaborator Jennifer Jason Leigh may have inspired this film about the dissolution of a marriage and creative partnership. The evolution, maturity and experience is clear; Marriage Story is Baumbach’s most tender, scalding, hilarious, raw, and sharply observed work to date.
The movie captures not just the complexity of how a relationship ends in divorce, or what people learn about themselves while detangling their lives – it examines the divorce-industrial complex itself, and the ruthless process that often compounds division and heartbreak.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star as Nicole and Charlie, an actress and theatre director with a young son. Nicole has instigated the split. A once-sought after It Girl who sacrificed fame and much of her creative voice to work in Charlie’s experimental theatre company, she feels stifled, lost and resentful. Charlie, whose controlling nature springs from oblivious selfishness rather than malicious intent, reacts to the divorce like most things in life: with the naively arrogant belief that things will work out for him.
Baumbach balances our sympathies brilliantly. By framing the action from Charlie’s perspective, we sympathise with his slow-burning realisation that divorce is brutal, and that his life will never be the same again. But Nicole’s tour-de-force confessions and conversations with her celebrity divorce lawyer (Laura Dern, a sublime feminist shark) reveal the layers of deeply gendered pain that Charlie’s cultivated cluelessness has caused. Nicole’s actions in divorce hurt Charlie; but his inaction in love hurt her.
Johansson and Driver’s nuanced performances capture their characters’ former idealism, and also express betrayal, confusion, immaturity and pain. A fierce, screaming, crying fight between them evokes Raymond Carver: sometimes lost love can only express itself as hate.
The superb lead performances and the story’s emotional wreckage are balanced by the comic genius of Baumbach’s screenplay and the brilliance of every supporting performer, from Alan Alda as Charlie’s kind-yet-bumbling lawyer, to Mary Hollis Inboden’s scene-stealing turn as a family court evaluator, who’s as dead-eyed, unemotional and ineffective as the divorce process itself.
Exquisite, scorching and utterly humane.