Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta
Words – Rhiannon Topham
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story opens with a couple of sickly sweet voiceovers from a couple listing everything they love and admire about their significant other. One leaves cupboard doors open and personal belongings strewn around the home, the other is self-sufficient and knows how to darn a sock.
Sound nice? It was, once.
The picture of marital bliss is quickly pulled apart once we meet Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) as they sit stiffly apart in a marriage counselor’s office, the former so visibly irked by the presence of the latter that she refuses to read her list in front of him.
It’s a bittersweet tale which dissects the tristesse of getting divorced — with whip-smart repostes and acerbic delivery, of course. The longer the saga goes on, the more the exes realise the difficulty in maintaining the impression of froideur at a time fraught with tension.
Nicole moves out of the family home in New York to take an acting job in her hometown LA, initially only temporarily but then abruptly permanently, and as she becomes more confident in articulating her stultifying routine, the physical and emotional chasm between she and Charlie (and their young son, ignorantly caught in the crossfire) both deepens and becomes clearer. Theatre director Charlie is constantly back and forth between New York and LA, his desperate attempts to gain joint custody of his son unjustly damaging his case for stability.
Learning to detach yourself from a long-term relationship is painful. Agonising, even. This is what makes divorce movies so watchable when done right, as a reflection of something we already know and recognise, perhaps have even felt and experienced personally, but seldom have the capacity to express or represent in a genuine or meaningful way.
Baumbach’s writing allows both leads to show off their acting mettle; Johansson performs the many emotional stages of breaking up with grace and, when necessary, outright nastiness, whereas Driver, in giving as good as he gets but falling apart slowly and then all at once, is a triumph.
The superb supporting cast of lawyers, namely no-nonsense Laura Dern and garrulous Alan Alda, toil to unpack the story behind what drew the two together then apart in the first place and twist even the minutiae of details to make the narrative favour their client. It’s ruthless and ugly, yet somehow delightfully droll. And, testament to the sheer quality of the writing, acting and directing, the eventual ceasefire is just as enjoyable as the conflict. Ignore all comparisons with Kramer vs. Kramer and other divorce dramas — just bask in this bastion of bitterness and all its virulent glory.