Noah Baumbach doesn’t do adaptations of other people’s work, opting instead to mine his own emotional fissures for dramatic gold. He tends to go for the ugliest nuggets — the jagged shards, which draw blood on extraction. In the wake of his alliance with the director and actress Greta Gerwig, Baumbach has shown signs of groping toward a more hopeful stance — i.e., a belief in the human capacity to change and grow. But it’s all relative. Even calling his divorce story Marriage Story and adding wistful harmonies by Randy Newman (as well as a climactic cri de coeur by Stephen Sondheim), Baumbach can’t entirely camouflage his sour self-pity.
With that self-pity comes, as usual, stretches of brilliance, none more glittering than the prologue: two lyrical, illustrated monologues, a wife’s tender paean to her husband’s most lovable traits and a husband’s tender paean to hers. The words are simultaneously true and beside the point, since the monologues have come at the direction of a mediator who likes to begin on a positive note, to remind divorcing couples what once they prized in each other. In a dramatic coup, the wife refuses to read what she wrote aloud — what we heard was apparently an imaginary read — and angrily decamps, leaving a befuddled hubby. So much for positivity.
The husband is Charlie (Adam Driver), a MacArthur “genius” grant winner who directs a New York avant-garde theater troupe, the wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an L.A.-bred actress who has been working with Charlie’s company but now has a chance to return to L.A. (and the showbiz spotlight) for a major TV role. At issue is their issue, little Henry (Azhy Robertson), whom neither wishes to have on the other side of the continent. For his part, Charlie doesn’t seem set on the divorce. He’s moving slowly, mulishly, weighed down by the prospect of being alone and — quite possibly — an Angeleno.
Try as you might, it’s hard to separate the fictional from the true. Nicole is obviously modeled on Baumbach’s ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he had a son. Like Nicole, Leigh grew up in a Hollywood showbiz family, very (perhaps too?) close to her mother and sister, and she gained fame doffing her top in a landmark teen comedy. (If there’s a muddling of fact, it’s that Phoebe Cates’s topless scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is remembered more vividly than Leigh’s.) Johansson has Leigh’s recognizable mix of earnest good nature and neuroticism. She’s smart but also skittery, undefended.
The connection between Charlie and Baumbach is less one-to-one — so much less that it seems a bit unfair. Charlie is certainly a tad overbearing. Did he stifle Nicole by keeping her in New York, away from her people? So she says. Did he muzzle her creativity by refusing to let her direct? That’s the charge. He admits he slept once with a stage manager of no importance, but only because Nicole hadn’t had sex with him in over a year, and what’s a guy to do, really? And surely that MacArthur grant tells you he’s a great artist, someone who puts his very soul into his work. Doesn’t that count for something? Now, Charlie is paying hard for his inattention and brief (but not unjustified) dalliance. Divorcing in L.A. rather than New York means Nicole stays in the bosom of her family while Charlie is all by his lonesome in a sterile pied-à-terre, 3,000 miles from his artistic family, not just among strangers but driven, phony L.A. strangers. It dawns on him that this is what he gets for being self-centered, but his self-centeredness seems so reasonable and his comeuppance so harsh that the autocriticism has no sting. He’s too dopey and lovable to regard as a threat to a normal woman’s self-esteem, and there’s no third party in the mix to complicate the picture.
What draws you into Marriage Story isn’t the particulars but the form, the attack. Each star has a scene or three in which she or he babbles and rails and walks in and out of the frame, going for broke in the way of actors in semi-improvised psychodramas rather than, say, billion-dollar fantasy franchises. I don’t think audiences and critics are wowed by anything Nicole and Charlie actually say (see Kenneth Lonergan’s director’s cut of Margaret for revelatory pipelines to the psyche) but the fact that they’re saying it at such a high, theatrical pitch, in ways that make crews applaud when “cut” is called. (“That was the Oscar take!”) Driver is a big guy with big but not always expressive features — his face can be a mask, his manner groggy, unfocused. But here he’s center stage and close up, laboring to burn through that mask and shake off that grogginess, and his drive toward being present connects with his character’s, and makes him very affecting. Johansson is even more vivid, her hair sheared to give her no tresses to twiddle or hide behind, her need for reassurance right there on the surface. But Nicole recedes in the story when the lawyers take over and put Charlie through the wringer. It’s his divorce story, not hers.
Baumbach’s main characters are written and acted straight as befits their personal integrity, but the rest of Marriage Story is done in a satirist’s broad strokes — a penetrating, often inspired satirist. Laura Dern plays Nicole’s lawyer (the description “high-powered” is unavoidable), Nora Fanshaw, and Dern’s genius is in nailing Fanshaw’s genius for creating an intimacy with her clients that’s both genuine and calculated. (My heart fluttered when Nicole told Charlie about her new lawyer and added, “I feel like we could be friends with her.” Nicole is such an easy mark.) Ray Liotta is in clover as Jay, Fanshaw’s counterpart on Charlie’s side, the actor’s glassy deadpan the perfect vehicle for Jay’s practiced — at times virtuosic — cynicism. The idea is that Dern and Liotta’s characters are scorched-earth advocates, drawing blood even as their respective clients writhe at the damage being done. Alan Alda is marvelous as Burt Spitz, the elderly, menschy attorney to whom Charlie turns when he’s spooked by Jay’s legalistic shivs — and who demonstrates to Charlie that, in this context, “human decency” translates as “impotence.” The incomparable Merritt Wever does much with her little as Nicole’s dotty, untethered sister, but Julie Hagerty’s charm can’t quite compensate for the cheap shots at her character, Nicole’s mother, who subtly undermines her daughters by allying herself with their exes.
The best things in Marriage Story are small moments that resonate like mad, my favorite being when Nicole makes a bad-taste joke to Charlie about her mothering skills and quickly adds, “That was a joke,” to which Charlie responds eagerly that he knows, and he feels the way she does about the harsh spotlight that distorts them both. The worst things are the intended showstoppers. I could live with Nicole, her mother, and her sister performing Sondheim’s Anderson Sisters-like trio from Company, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” because it’s goofy and high-spirited, but Driver’s much-lauded one-shot performance of the same musical’s “Being Alive” made me cringe. The song dramatizes the moment when Company’s Bobby realizes that he wants someone to regularly pop his bubble of self-containment, to vary his days, to force him to care, and it’s a big deal in the context of the show (though some people prefer the song that it replaced, the more ambivalent “Marry Me a Little”). It’s a good ending — for Company, where it has been carefully set up by Bobby’s two-plus-hour insistence that marriage is hell and freedom takes precedence over commitment. Having complained about Baumbach’s penchant for looking at things in their ugliest light, I have to say that the opposite — a sudden, spurious harmony, a Sondheim ex machina — is even less satisfying. Couldn’t Baumbach have come up with own damn epiphany?