The last time Scarlett Johansson traversed a void of frame-filling darkness, she was a voluptuous alien consuming eager men like so much protein in 2013’s Under the Skin. In the opening fade-in of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, she is once again a figure framed in absolute blackness, a light emerging from its absence in glorious medium shot.
It’s almost religious, like one of the faces on the Queen II album cover. Yet this time, the setting is more prosaic than an extraterrestrial’s mealtime. It’s a rehearsal for an Off-Broadway play, and Johansson’s Nicole is the star of the show, the ravishing recipient of its spotlight. And why not? She’s being directed by her husband, Charlie (a career-best Adam Driver), after all. He may be biased, but as he tells us moments later, she’s his favorite actress.
Or, at least, she was, a thousand years ago. This overture, and the few minutes of nuptial bliss that follow it in montage form, constitute the only times we see these hurt characters at their best. Over soundless images of the couple’s content life, each shares positive insights about the other in voice-over. “He can tell people they have food in their teeth in a way that doesn’t make them feel bad,” Nicole says. “Nicole makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things,” Charlie says, as if unconsciously mirroring a similar sentiment. “She really listens when someone is talking.”
But despite its title, Baumbach’s latest masterpiece is a divorce story, in which the affection displayed in this prologue — the result of a thought exercise by the couple’s mediator, who insisted they write down positive things about their partner as they navigate their separation — has curdled into contempt. More so from Nicole than from Charlie, but he’ll get there.
As we learn from an insightful soliloquy Nicole delivers to her high-powered divorce lawyer, Nora (a brilliant Laura Dern, all but reprising her character in Big Little Lies), the cracks in the marriage metastasized from a kind of professional loggerheads: She didn’t want to simply fulfill her role as Charlie’s creative muse — his “aliveness,” and she puts it — at the expense of her personal happiness, her desires, her own growth as an artist. To self-actualize, she needed a break, and to leave New York for the sprawl of her native L.A., and a job on TV, and her family. But of course, things are never that simple. The roots of their severance were present even before they had their now 8-year-old child, Henry.
Baumbach first broached the sting of divorce in his 2005 classic The Squid and the Whale, a picture told primarily from the perspective of a splitting couple’s two children. Marriage Story identifies with its adults, and while Baumbach’s script leans heavier on Charlie’s painful Kubler-Ross response to the divorce than on Nicole’s instigative command of each legal and emotional twist and turn, he is careful to empathize with both and to demonize neither. Baumbach, whose screenplay drew partly from his own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, takes the sober, cosmic view of marriage’s inextricable hold on people even when documents, and feelings, and life itself suggest otherwise.
“Marriage … also continues in divorce,” he has said. “You’re married the whole time you’re doing it. And when a kid is involved, marriage continues, in a sense, after the divorce as well.” Thus, the raw, draining, primordial power of the couple’s ugliest on-screen fight, in which Charlie wishes Nicole dead in unforgivably graphic terms, only to be comforted by her seconds later.
Baumbach doesn’t hide the movie’s precedents: Kramer Vs. Kramer, sure, but especially the ruthless marital vivisections of Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman. (“Scenes From a Marriage” is the sly headline of a New York Times article about this theater couple’s co-working life, framed on the wall of their home.) But these directors’ great relationship breakdowns had little to do with legal processes, and no movie has better explored the brutality and absurdity of the soulless divorce industry than Marriage Story.
Charlie, forced into hiring counsel after Nicole does the same, first settles on retired, soft-spoken Bert Spitz (an excellent Alan Alda), whose ambling disposition is no match for Nora’s cutthroat prosecution. So, in his increasingly unmoored hope to declare the family’s permanent domicile in New York so he can raise Henry in Brooklyn, Charlie is forced to dig into his son’s college fund to afford the $950-an-hour divorce shark Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta). And that’s when things really get ugly. As Nora says, briefly eschewing her persona, “the system rewards bad behavior.”
Marriage Story is chock full of lived-in insights that perhaps only a middle-aged person could reliably write, such as Nicole’s conclusion about children: “The minute they leave your body, it’s the process of them going away.” And, without much of a plot to propel the scenes forward, the movie assumes its power from its accretion of accurate details, its micro set pieces, its deadpan wit even in times of pain and sorrow: the way the environmentally obsessive Charlie shuts off a light on his way out of Nicole’s L.A. residence, as a kind of bitter parting shot, for instance. Or Baumbach’s camera catching Charlie in a fiction by whip-panning to his glowing television set after he haughtily insists to Nicole that “I don’t watch TV.”
All of which is to say that Marriage Story is — despite its achieved sublimity, the tears it will doubtlessly induce, and its characters’ (literal, in one case) open wounds — an unlikely comedy. Take Randy Newman’s swooning, sumptuous score, with its melodies reverently harkening to Hollywood comedies of the ‘40s. It seems at times to be contrapuntal, until you take the longer view. He, and Baumbach, have been hinting from the beginning that even when it’s not OK, it will be OK. Because it has to be.
MARRIAGE STORY. Director: Noah Baumbach; Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Azhy Robertson, Wallace Shawn; Distributor: Netflix; Rating: R; Now playing at Living Room Theaters at FAU, the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale and Tower Theater in Miami. Now streaming on Netflix.