Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a tale of unravelling, of thwarted hope and bitter frustration. Here, divorce rewrites the past, reframing a loving relationship as a decade-long battle, impoverishing its players while enriching their lawyers. For the latter, the higher the stakes, the brighter the rewards; any sense of peace or perspective is lost to their big-dollar game.
Based on Baumbach’s own experiences during his 2013 split from actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, this semi-autobiographical movie is told mainly from theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver)’s point of view. His wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), has had enough. He’s cheated on her, and it’s the final straw. She gave up a promising LA film career and relocated to New York to be with him; her fame ensured publicity for his then-fledgling theatre company. Now he’s successful, fêted as the toast of the avant-garde, and he’s stopped paying attention to what she wants.
And what she wants now is a divorce.
Not only that, she’s also moving back to LA, where she’s been offered a part in a TV pilot. Charlie doesn’t rate TV, and he doesn’t think the project will go anywhere, so he doesn’t object when she takes their eight-year old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), with her. But Nicole has no intention of returning – why would she? – and, when the pilot is given the green light, she employs a lawyer to help her wrangle the details.
Laura Dern plays Nora Fanshaw, a fancy LA divorce lawyer with a tendency to kick off her heels and over-sympathise, a vulture feigning friendship. She’s terrific in the role, all hard-as-nails faux-comforter and, along with the other lawyers in the piece (Ray Liotta and Alan Alda), provides much light relief in what is, at times, a harrowing story. Young Azhy Robertson is a delight too: his Henry is wonderfully truculent, never saying quite what his parents want him to, refusing to perform for either one of them, turning his deadpan eyes away.
But this is Adam Driver’s movie, really. Johansson performs well too, but we see more of Charlie, understand his grief better, and his failings too. He despises LA, and we share his sense of helplessness as he’s forced to semi-relocate there in order to be a dad, while his New York directing career begins to suffer his absence. Despite their privilege, he and Nicole are nearly broken by the process, their plain apartments in clear contrast with their lawyers’ glitzy offices and designer clothes.
It’s genuinely heartbreaking, but rather funny and lovely too. Catch it on Netflix now.