Review: 'Marriage Story'

Things fall apart in Noah Baumbach's latest film
AN UNCOUPLING: Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star in 'Marriage Story.'

Despite the folk wisdom, marriage doesn't have a 50 percent chance of failing. Variables—like region, religion and so forth—indicate that the pass-fail rate is more like 40 to 50 percent. Apparently people like those kind of odds.

In Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, an anguished husband named Charlie (Adam Driver) notices a throw pillow in the office of his saber-toothed LA divorce lawyer, Jay (Ray Liotta). It's embroidered with the words "Eat, Drink and Remarry." Looking for repeat business?

Baumbach previously directed The Squid and the Whale, about the tumult between a divorced pair (Laura Linney, Jeff Daniels); if there are similar autobiographical elements here, it proves we cannot learn from our parents' mistakes. In voiceover, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is reading a note about all the things she loves about her husband—the way he came out of a troubled Midwestern background and became "more New Yorker than New Yorkers," Charlie is a theatrical director, a magnet for talent... but this apparent love note was composed as part of a counselling program carried out just before the divorce. Now the two are fuming in the office of an overly- jeweled male therapist who displays books with titles like Why? and Woe. The idea is that if Nicole could write down the reasons she married Charlie in the first place, it'll make the exit graceful. No such luck.

The quarrel between this couple, which comes to a wall-punching, window-rattling fight, is represented by the same split that was in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. (No surprise; Allen is a huge influence on Baumbach). He's a serious New Yorker, she's LA born and bred; her mother (the ageless Julie Haggerty) was an actress, as is her sister (Nurse Jackie's Merrit Wever, very funny). The split becomes irrevocable when Nicole gets a role on a TV show that sounds awfully like Avatar, leaving Charlie to try to take his production of Electra to Broadway. This leaves custody battles for their kid Henry (Azhy Robertson) who is not above a bit of manipulation in dealing with his fractured parents.

Baumbach finds new depths in his performers, in the wounded, frightened side in Driver, and the macho side in Johansson; she's quite small, but formidable in a boy's haircut and trousers. The passing of various Halloweens gives this film a sense of time going by. In one year, she's dressed up as Let's Dance era Bowie: the 1983 edition, from the year before Johansson was born.

The shape of Marriage Story is problematic—episodes were good enough for Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, back even before Netflix existed. In installment form, the story wouldn't have seemed to have peaked too early with the Strindbergian fight between Nicole and Charlie in the bare, beige divorce apartment he's taken up. (It's a perfect set, every New Yorker's nightmare of such a place: window slats like prison bars, too sunny and nowhere to walk to—just as a roachy, walled in Manhattan noisebox would be any Angelino's nightmare).

Bitter-comic relief comes in from the hired hands. Laura Dern is wonderfully scary-sexy in that ghastly LA industry style, where you have to keep dressing like you're 20 deep into your 50s. Dern plays Nora, Nicole's lawyer; she has a speech about the historical newness of the idea of the "perfect father." that'll get her to the Oscars.

Alan Alda is very warm as Bert, a shabbier, palsied lawyer Charlie hires for a time—a mensch, but he ends up costing Charlie $25,000. Bert is honest about the Kafka-style contradictions of what a court looks for in a father. Less showy but just as funny is Texan stand-up comedienne Martha Kelly as the observer hired by the court to examine Charlie's place. She's on some unnerving extraterrestrial wavelength, and gives one more rendition of the running gag about why LA is superior to NYC ("the space!...")

Marriage Story is authentic about the tragedy of the situation, when the person wounding you is the person to whom (once upon a time) you'd first look to for solace. The bond between Charlie and Nicole endures at the end, in a matched pair of songs from Sondheim's Company—one at an LA family party, the other at a Broadway bar (who knew Kylo Ren could sing?) Marriage Story would be the worst first date movie, ever, but more seasoned couples can see it and huddle for comfort.

Marriage Story
R; 137 Min.
3Below Theaters & Lounge
December on Netflix

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