Marriage is an enormous act of faith. It has to be, statistically: What else asks you to give your whole heart, with a 50 percent chance it might be pulverized? Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is an act of faith too; a bet that you’ll invest 136 minutes watching two ordinary (albeit exceptionally attractive) people fall apart, like uncountable couples before and after them.
There isn’t even some hugely dramatic schism between Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) that triggers it all — just the everyday alienations and betrayals of a union that seems to be working, until it suddenly isn’t anymore. But their unraveling turns out to be a sad, funny, devastating thing to watch unfold; a sort of pulverization-by-proxy that draws you so far into Charlie and Nicole’s world, it sometimes feels like emotional trespassing just to be sitting there in the theater.
The script lets you know from the outset that they were crazy in love once, this brilliant Brooklyn theater director and his actress muse, with their avant-garde stage collaborations and adorable young son (Azhy Robertson). But when Nicole has a shot at a TV pilot in Los Angeles, where she also grew up, she sees it as a chance to get out from under Charlie, the weight of his opinions and assumptions and his monumental (to her) self-absorption. He’s shellshocked — confounded that she would abandon their New York life and artistic freedom for the palm-treed banalities of Hollywood.
Soon, there are lawyers: a land shark in stilettos for her (a shrewd, fantastic Laura Dern), and a tag team of rumpled semi-retiree (Alan Alda) and ruthless goodfella (Ray Liotta) for him. Questions about which coast they’ll settle on and who will have more custody of their son get ugly fast; their promises to keep it amicable pretty much disappear with the zeroes on their first legal bill.
As Baumbach navigates the growing breach between them, he lets the movie’s rhythms ebb and flow; there are long scenes where nothing much happens, other than ordinary life, and others where the hurt and animosity explode, years of pent-up feeling packed into a single look or a vicious word that can’t be taken back.
Johansson is extremely watchable, if a little vague, as Nicole — though that’s fitting, maybe, for a character who confesses she’s never really known who she is without her family. The movie truly belongs to Driver, who puts so much raw, tender feeling into Charlie that even his worst moments pulse with empathy.
Maybe that’s an unfair game on Baumbach’s part as well, if he is in fact drawing closely from his own life (he and the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh were divorced in 2013, and also share a son); but this Story is his to tell, and tilt however he wishes.
And though it may not an easy movie to watch, or even a particularly original one — Kramer vs. Kramer, among others precedents, looms large — Marriage still feels like something special on the screen: a movie that somehow makes its intimacy seem like a radical act, one messy, heart-wrecking moment at a time. A–
(Marriage Story comes to theaters Nov. 6 and Netflix Dec. 6)