Marriage Story review: Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver do the splits in a hilarious screwball Kramer vs. Kramer
Dir: Noah Baumbach; Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Wallace Shawn. Cert 15, 135 mins.
One of the strangest and most beautiful paradoxes of cinema is this: the more needlingly specific it gets, the more sweepingly inclusive it feels. At the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, the multi-national audience in the Sala Grande winced and hooted as one at Noah Baumbach’s tremendous Marriage Story, a thinly veiled cine-memoir about the filmmaker’s recent divorce from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.
It is Baumbach’s funniest, most fine-grained picture since 2012’s Frances Ha – a kind of screwball Kramer vs. Kramer, full of laser-targeted telling comic detail, both about the divorce process itself and the couple’s split existence between the New York arts scene and upper middle class Los Angeles. There is a subtly brilliant running joke in which the film’s LA residents keep gushing over their city’s “sense of space” – invariably from inside some poky air-conditioned office.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as Charlie and Nicole, a Brooklyn-based director and his Hollywood born-and-bred wife, who exchanged her early fame as a teen-movie pin-up to join her husband’s boundary-pushing theatre troupe. Their marriage has evidently run its course, so they have decided to separate – as amicably as possible for the sake of their son (Azhy Robertson), ideally with no lawyers involved.
But on the advice of a colleague, Nicole makes an exploratory visit to a hotshot attorney (Laura Dern), and soon enough she and Charlie find themselves being swallowed whole by the divorce business’s fearsome machinery, like a pair of Chaplins being wrung out by the cogs in Modern Times.
The film begins with the couple describing each other in the kind of loving micro-detail you can only know about a spouse: Charlie notes that Nicole is “always inexplicably brewing a cup of tea she doesn’t drink”, for example. Yet this turns out to be a mediation exercise preparing the ground for their split – they are at a strange, anticipatory stage Nicole later likens to being “the opposite of a fiancée”.
In a virtuoso monologue in Dern’s office, Johansson superbly captures Nicole’s years of vague but well-founded resentment: in brief, she made too many professional and personal concessions for the sake of her husband’s career, with no equivalent sacrifices made on his part.
Baumbach’s screenplay is brilliantly attuned to the ways in which good relationships can neutralise this kind of toxicity – and also how fast it comes spluttering out when their workings seize up. It also makes great comedic capital from the way banal life details can seem hair-raisingly incriminating when announced in a courtroom, from wine consumption rates to squabbles over how to fit a child’s car seat. Call it there-but-for-the-grace-of-God comedy – and Johansson and Driver play it with godlike comic grace.
Rare empathy, too. Even at the height of their bitterest arguments, cinematographer Robbie Ryan frames both actors sympathetically, in a range of seemingly effortless Bergmanesque close-ups and profiles. Marriage Story may often resemble a tug of war between its stars, but it’s on both of their sides.
Subscriber reward: Click here to save up to 40% on tickets at more than 250 cinemas across the UK