Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are a married couple who want to separate, but the reality of doing so is harder than they could’ve imagined. It always is when children are involved, and they’re both devoted parents to their 8-year-old, Henry (Azhy Robertson).
Nicole wants to move from New York to her native Los Angeles in order to make the jump from acting in Charlie’s avant-garde theater troupe to her own TV pilot. Charlie has no interest in leaving New York. He wants his family to stay there while he continues to direct and run his company of actors. “We’re a New York family,” he continuously insists, even as Nicole files for divorce in L.A. and enrolls Henry in school there — which Henry prefers. Charlie and Nicole no longer want to be married, but they can’t agree on how that shakes out.
When the separation starts, they agree to split everything evenly between them — no muss, no fuss. Easier said than done when the only thing that really matters is a child who defines your world and your destinies lie on separate sides of a continent.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach reportedly based Marriage Story on his own divorce almost a decades ago, as well as the experiences of close friends and family who experienced similar situations. Grueling, heartbreaking situations. Nicole and Charlie are complex characters with their own flaws and strengths. There’s never a moment where the two seem like they should make up and continue to be married, but neither comes across as a villain. It’s just … a sad story of two humans who have no idea to resolve the situation they find themselves in, and the only help arrives in the form of expensive lawyers who prey on their predicaments.
Nicole finds a confidant and champion in Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) while Charlie’s legal representation shifts as the situation becomes more contentious. Each of them balloons the argument beyond the fundamental disagreement — where Henry will live and with whom — and for what amount of time. Their better angels quickly lose the haloes and pull out horns. It gets personal.
Johansson and Driver have some much-deserved buzz coming out of Marriage Story. Their performances make it watchable. It’s difficult to watch given how grounded and relatable it is to see two people desperate to be with their child. Baumbach’s writing and direction feels like the same material would play just as well on stage, and that’s probably the case. Both actors are given stunning monologues — ravishing moments of emotional release and physical humor. Dern, too, has two showstopping moments made greater by the fact that her character isn’t inherently trustworthy despite her feminist sympathies. It feels like everyone is out to get something from Charlie and Nicole, when all that the two of them really want is Henry. You root for them to come to an agreement but know the process will get worse before it improves.
Marriage Story lacks the depth and complexity of Baumbach’s previous Netflix release, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and ultimately feels more like a talent showcase for his screenwriting and the two leads. It leaves a feeling of deep, deep melancholy that doesn’t lift quickly. Frankly, it’s not especially fun to watch two people — whom you can hardly believe ever were together — argue over their son. The straightforward nature of the story means the ending is relatively clear as it starts, and the pared-down cast (it’s really a two-hander with very small supporting roles) makes the world feel inhabited solely by Charlie and Nicole’s emotional realities. This makes sense for the tone of the piece but also leaves their plight somewhat lacking a sort of context, and it’s an absence that aches upon review. The melancholy sticks, though.