Marriage Story is Baumbach’s second film for Netflix, following The Meyerowitz Stories, and it is surely partly inspired (if that’s the right word) by his 2013 divorce from the actor Jennifer Jason Leigh. It has fine performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, a family-pack of box-fresh dialogue and a keen sense of its own absurdity. Baumbach seeks to mine his material for laughs, no matter how desperate the situation becomes. Most of Noah Baumbach’s films can be described, in one way or another, as “marriage stories”: his scripts are often set in the margins of marital or romantic strife, burrowing into the cracks that develop before, after, and around a souring relationship.
In his masterful The Squid and the Whale, two young boys come to terms with the acrimonious separation of their parents; in While We’re Young, the nostalgic allure of youth tests a midlife-crisis-ridden marriage; both Margot at the Wedding and The Meyerowitz Stories feature a divorcee (or an about-to-be divorcee) caught in a complex, anguished nexus of familial dysfunction.
By the time Marriage Story begins, all this is already in the past and the separation has been initiated. The subject of the film isn’t why they’re parting, but how, exactly. How do they protect their sweet, but demanding 7-year-old son, Henry, from the drastic changes that are bound to ensue? How do they divide their lives across two far-apart coasts? And most significantly, how do they reconcile the fact that they still genuinely care for each other with the realization that they make for a deeply unhappy couple? Charlie insists upon the fantasy of an amicable breakup, navigated with therapists instead of lawyers, but Nicole realises that extricating her life from Charlie’s requires a more clear-eyed and unsentimental approach. She fires the first shot, hiring celebrity lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) to fight her case. Not only do these legal back-and-forths form the most insightful parts of the film, but they also yield some of its best performances and lines — especially from Charlie and Nicole’s lawyers. Alan Alda plays Bert Spitz, an elderly lawyer who impresses Charlie with his ability to bring genuine empathy to the divorce process. Alda is gentle and firm in the role, gracefully delivering some of the film’s most profound aphorisms.
Marriage Story is nevertheless an intensely watchable film, whether due to Driver and Johansson’s earnest performances and onscreen charm, or Baumbach’s ability to capture urban spaces (New York and Los Angeles, in this case) with evocative detail. But it’s also a slight and sometimes bland film, whose protagonists never truly get under your skin. Ultimately, the film is more compelling as an account not of love, but of its absorption into the language of law — i.e, as a “divorce story” rather than a “marriage story.”