“Marriage Story” opens with spouses Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) each reciting a list of everything they love and admire about each other. It’s almost unbearably adorable, so much so that writer-director Noah Baumbach immediately pulls out the rug: These lists are an exercise assigned by a counselor who’s seeing the couple through their divorce.
Over the course of this poignant, hilarious, heartbreaking saga, Baumbach performs an incisive autopsy on this couple. As their breakup brings out the best and worst of them, we will learn why they worked so well together and why they needed to separate from each other; if there’s a plot or traditional dramatic tension here, it’s over whether or not these two can remain amicable enough to stay close to each other and to be effective parents to their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson, “After the Wedding”).
Baumbach performs a brilliant balancing act throughout; I was often reminded of Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale,” a film I can watch multiple times and always find myself siding and empathizing with a different member of a combative, dysfunctional family. Just when it seems like the film might be presenting Nicole or Charlie as the sole wronged party, the script provides new information or veers in another direction. We love them both and we get irritated with them both, but we mainly want Henry to be OK.
Complicating matters is the bi-coastal nature of the divorce; Charlie is an acclaimed New York theater director, and actress/L.A. native Nicole goes home to shoot a pilot, taking Henry with her. Once legal proceedings begin, Henry’s placement on the west coast means lots of flights back and forth for Charlie, not to mention contending with California partnership laws, something that their respective teams of lawyers are only too happy to do, for a high hourly rate. (Those lawyers are also happy to pick apart every wrong thing Nicole or Charlie have ever said or done, with relish.)
Representing Nicole is Nora (Laura Dern, in full “Big Little Lies” mode), a smooth talker who’s an accomplished Divorcée Whisperer but no less ruthless in the courtroom than Charlie’s eventual attorney Jay, a suited shark that gives Ray Liotta one of his meatiest roles in ages. (Charlie’s first attorney is the older and more laconic but no less pragmatic Bert, played memorably by Alan Alda.)
Baumbach makes the Los Angeles digs you’d expect from any New York-based filmmaker — partisans of L.A. go a little glassy-eyed and talk about “the space” as one of the city’s main selling points — but without the vitriol of, say, “Annie Hall.” And contrasting the two cities is just one of the challenges for cinematographer Robbie Ryan (“The Favourite”), who clearly relishes the delineations of spaces like Nicole and Charlie’s Brooklyn apartment versus the San Fernando Valley home of Nicole’s mom Sandra (Julie Hagerty), or how the intimacy of Charlie’s New York rehearsal space differs from the cavernous soundstage where Nicole shoots her pilot.
With “Marriage Story,” Baumbach cements his reputation as one of this generation’s leading humanist filmmakers. Since 2005, he’s had an extraordinary run of films — “The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding,” “Greenberg,” “While We’re Young,” “Mistress America,” “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” and his masterpiece, “Frances Ha” — with deeply flawed, often exasperating characters who are nonetheless always capable of growth and redemption. This latest film certainly fits that category, and it once again demonstrates Baumbach’s ability to get the best from his performers. It’s difficult to call either Johansson or Driver a “revelation” here on the heels of so much strong work in recent years, but both manage to outdo themselves.
Both characters run a gamut from narcissism to compassion, and these actors fill in every shading. And while the two leads carry much of the movie, the ensemble provides plenty of delight as well, with Hagerty and Alda getting some of their meatiest material in recent memory, Wallace Shawn stealing some scenes as an aging theater lothario, and Robertson eschewing any and all artificial cute-kid tics and delivering a genuine performance. (He’s so natural that I assumed he was a first-timer; I was surprised to discover later that he plays a key role in one of the best “SNL” bits of the past few years, “Wells for Boys.”)
“Marriage Story” falls in line with a tradition of great films about the messiness of relationships, and Baumbach acknowledges his predecessors — a framed New York Times profile of Nicole and Charlie hanging in Sandra’s house is headlined “Scenes from a Marriage,” after Ingmar Bergman’s incisive look at an uncoupling, and both Nicole and Charlie separately perform numbers from Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” also about the complexity of intimacy. (Adam Driver’s bravura one-take rendition of one of the show’s most powerful songs, incidentally, makes you want to see him star in a revival.)
One wonders if Baumbach left references to “Kramer vs. Kramer” or “Two for the Road” on the cutting-room floor, but either way, “Marriage Story” is a film that deserves to be mentioned in their company. It’s devastating, essential, and destined to be remembered long after this awards cycle ends.