The evolution of Noah Baumbach’s career has been quite fascinating. From a disciple of Wes Anderson in the ’90s to a more divisive figure in the ’00s, only to eventually become something of an indie darling in the 2010s. Many of Noah Baumbach’s early films had a coldness to them that kept viewers at a distance. While the director has always had his admirers and the general interest of critics, the critical consensus for his 2007 feature Margot at the Wedding on Rotten Tomatoes reveals what many felt about his work: “the characters…are too unlikable to enthrall viewers.”
The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach’s Oscar nominated 2005 film, stands out as particularly interesting to explore in relation to his latest, Marriage Story. Both are about divorce, but there is a world of difference in the way they explore the potentially traumatic theme. The Squid and the Whale, like many of Baumbach’s early works in the 21st century, centers entirely on unlikable men, showing how one bad father passes his misogyny down to his son. It’s an effective film and, like many of his works, quite funny. But it’s an uncomfortable film to experience—and one that certainly makes you wonder why anyone would ever bother to get married.
Marriage Story feels different, but it’s also about a divorce, and the way it will impact a child. This time, it’s theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) who are getting divorced, with their six-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) dangling between them. They hope for an amicable divorce, and share a deep love for their son, but things become complicated when their careers take them to entirely different coasts. Charlie wins a MacArthur grant, and finally gets the chance to make his directorial debut on Broadway with an interesting, experimental take on Electra that Nicole helped him originate. Nicole, meanwhile, has been cast in a promising new sci-fi series that will film on the West Coast. And, suddenly, the two parents find themselves fighting about which coast their son should call his permanent home.
Baumbach’s intelligently-written screenplay doesn’t really pick a side here. Charlie and Nicole are capable of both good and bad, and the film treats them with compassion, flaws and all. We can see the genuine affection they shared as a couple and the way the real tragedy of their divorce does not stem from wrongdoing (although there is some of that), but the fact that they both failed to live up to each other’s ideal version of a partner. The truth is, the characters in Marriage Story are mostly all decent human beings, and they will be fine once the dust settles and they move on. Baumbach instead mines the very real tragedy that comes from these traumatic moments in an otherwise normal life – how these moments of intense emotion can bring out the best and worst in people, and force partners, parents, and children to confront their flaws on a very public stage.
The supporting characters in Marriage Story make up something of a Greek chorus. Many brilliantly-staged sequences travel around Charlie’s theater company as they rehearse, gossiping about the latest updates in their director’s divorce as a means of setting the scene. Meanwhile, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever play Nicole’s mother and sister respectively, who help bring out character traits in the central couple that wouldn’t necessarily be apparent. We learn so much about Nicole’s loving, but complicated relationship with her family, and how that informed her decision to get married and have a child. We also learn a lot about Charlie through these interactions as well—mainly that he’s never had a family of his own and desperately clung to Nicole’s in a way that possibly took her for granted.
But the key supporting characters are the lawyers. Nicole hires Nora (Laura Dern), a notoriously tough lawyer who’s dedicated to her clients, while Charlie hovers back and forth between the unbearably sexist but capable Jay (Ray Liotta) and the gentler but less successful Bert (Alan Alda). It’s through these characters that Baumbach explores the horrible way that misogyny and outdated gender roles have molded divorce in our country. Both Charlie and Nicole want to treat each other amicably, but their lawyers draw out their worst qualities and weaponize them against each other in moments that truly hurt to experience. Their mediation and court room scenes feel like battles where their lawyers present their cases to the audience about who is “right” in their divorce, but really all we see is how toxic this process is for them. And, in one brilliant monologue, Nora reveals how gender stereotypes have rigged the system for Nicole, no matter what she wants from this divorce.
By using the supporting characters in this way, Baumbach is able to offer full portraits of his two leads. It also helps, of course, that two great actors instill life into their roles. Johansson delivers a strong, technical performance that calls on her to deliver multiple monologues in a way that feels natural, while also playing off many characters in a way that makes their history feel apparent without being obvious. It’s quite impressive. But Driver is particularly stunning, absolutely killing every quiet and internal moment he’s given but exploding in all his character’s worst moments with a sense of anger that’s almost frightening. It’s a really fascinating, often heartbreaking performance.
Whereas The Squid and the Whale took a rather negative view on marriage and family, Marriage Story is–amidst all the sadness–somewhat hopeful. In its final act, two separate songs from Stephen Sondheim’s masterful exploration of marriage, Company, are performed. It’s fitting because both of these works are trying to accomplish the same thing: try to explain why anybody would do something that could potentially be as painful as marrying someone when there are so many things that could possibly go wrong. There are moments here that are absolutely gutting, with a handful of Baumbach’s typical jokes peppered throughout. But there’s a lot of bittersweet beauty here, making Marriage Story Baumbach’s most humane, empathetic, and all around best movie.