Marriage Story, the emotionally devastating divorce drama by director and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), begins with Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) listening to her husband Charlie (Adam Driver) reel off a list of qualities he loves about her. Charlie commends his wife for always knowing the right thing to do, giving him and their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) haircuts and having the ability to drive stick, just to name a few.
The recognition of these small things would likely be considered thoughtful and romantic to most people if, say, Charlie was making a speech at a surprise birthday party for Nicole or reciting his vows. It’s less chivalrous, albeit just as impactful, when Baumbach reveals that Charlie’s praise for her is coming at the behest of a marriage counselor who’s mediating their separation.
Baumbach knows divorce well — personally and, in turn, cinematically. His 2005 independent, dark comedy masterpiece The Squid and the Whale was a semi-autobiographical look at his own parents’ divorce during the mid-1980s in Brooklyn. He uses his own divorce from his wife of eight years, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, to give Marriage Story an authentic structure. What surges out of his screenplay is a heart-wrenching story about what is essentially the slow and untimely death of a once-loving relationship.
Johansson and Driver deliver career-best performances, and there is absolutely no doubt they will be nominated for everything they qualify for this awards season. The honest dialogue creates a dynamic between the two that’s difficult to capture, especially since these kinds of storylines can backslide into melodramatic pits where no one can breathe. Luckily for Johansson and Driver as well as Oscar nominees Laura Dern (Wild) and Alan Alda (The Aviator), who play two of the couple’s divorce lawyers, Baumbach’s skill and maturity as a writer and director is evident early on.
While much of Marriage Story seems to focus on one particular aspect of the divorce — whether they’ll live in LA or New York to raise their child — the film is more than just a waiting game to see how a judge is going to rule. Instead, it’s a touching narrative that conveys a deep-seated message on the significance of self-reflection and the loss of identity after sharing a life with someone for so long.
It may sound like audiences could drown in a sea of sorrows, but Baumbach allows Marriage Story to materialize from a broad palette that includes plenty of humor, joy and tenderness. Thematically speaking, it’s all been done before, but when the little moments shine, Marriage Story rises above the rest.
Marriage Story debuts on Netflix December 6.