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'Marriage Story' Reveals The Messy, Heartbreaking Toll Of Divorce


This is FRESH AIR. It's been 14 years since the release of "The Squid And The Whale," Noah Baumbach's drama about two brothers dealing with their parents' divorce. His new movie, "Marriage Story," is also about a couple who decide to call it quits, played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. The cast also includes Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta. The film opens this week with a limited theatrical run before it begins streaming December 6 on Netflix. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: In Noah Baumbach's devastating new movie "Marriage Story," Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play Charlie and Nicole Barber, an artist couple who live in Brooklyn with their 8-year-old son, Henry. Nicole is an actress who works with Charlie, a director, at his avant-garde theater company.

The opening sequence, which Charlie and Nicole narrate in voiceover, is a series of flashbacks to some of their happiest moments as a family. There are Monopoly games and home-cooked meals, afternoon outings and bedtime rituals. But no one knows the whole truth of a marriage except the two people who are in it. And in the next scene, Charlie and Nicole are sitting down with a mediator who's guiding them through the early steps of their separation.

Baumbach has always delighted in skewering the lives of artists and intellectuals whose ambitions are often at odds with their pursuit of happiness, and his pictures have always walked a thin line between scalding humor and piercing emotion. But he has never reconciled those impulses as powerfully as he does in "Marriage Story," which is fully alive to the messiness of an impossible, yet all too recognizable situation. The movie also offers a blistering look inside the American divorce industry, a system that proceeds to bleed Charlie and Nicole dry emotionally and financially.

Nicole has landed the lead in a TV pilot in Los Angeles and heads out there with Henry for a spell that Charlie assumes will be temporary. Although, as we'll soon see, he has a habit of assuming too much. Unlike her diehard New Yorker husband, Nicole grew up in LA. And now that she's back, she wants to stay. She realizes this in a conversation with her divorce attorney, Nora, played by a brilliantly ascerbic Laura Dern.


LAURA DERN: (As Nora Fanshaw) Where do you want to live now, doll?

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Nicole Barber) Well, I'm here now, obviously. I don't know if the show will get picked up. It feels like home. It is home. It's the only home I've ever known without Charlie.

DERN: (As Nora Fanshaw) You want to stay here?

JOHANSSON: (As Nicole Barber) Charlie's not going to want that. He hates LA.

DERN: (As Nora Fanshaw) We're interested in what you want to do. What you're doing is an act of hope. You understand that?

JOHANSSON: (As Nicole Barber) Yeah.

CHANG: When Charlie flies out to meet Nicole, she serves him with divorce papers. This throws him off guard and forces him to find an LA-based attorney even as he tries to keep up with work on his latest play in New York. What he thought would be a smooth, amicable parting soon erupts into a bitter bi-coastal custody battle. The most affordable lawyer Charlie can find is a guy named Bert, wonderfully played by Alan Alda, who sympathetically lays out all the difficulties that lie ahead.


ADAM DRIVER: (As Charlie Barber) Will we go to court?

ALAN ALDA: (As Bert Spitz) No. No, we don't want to go to court. Courts in California are a disaster, and that's just how we have to think about it. I'm not sure these are my glasses. Where are you living while you're out here?

DRIVER: (As Charlie Barber) In a hotel right now.

ALDA: (As Bert Spitz) A hotel doesn't look good.

DRIVER: (As Charlie Barber) To who?

ALDA: (As Bert Spitz) The court.

DRIVER: (As Charlie Barber) You just said we weren't going to go to court.

ALDA: (As Bert Spitz) No, of course. Of course. We have to prepare to go to court hoping we don't go to court.

DRIVER: (As Charlie Barber) OK.

ALDA: (As Bert Spitz) You should get a place in LA.

CHANG: "Marriage Story" gets the performative nature of divorce, the way both parties wind up exaggerating their virtues and each other's faults. It gets how divorce can not only end a marriage but poison it, forcing Charlie and Nicole to scan their entire marital history looking for anything they can use as dirt against each other. Most of all, the movie understands the heartbreaking toll of all this on young Henry, who becomes both a prize and a bit of an abstraction. Their fight over him seems to be more for their benefit than for his.

Baumbach guided us through the emotional wreckage of a broken family 14 years ago in "The Squid And The Whale," which was inspired by his teenage memories of his parents' divorce. The director has noted that "Marriage Story" was informed by many people's experience of divorce, including his own. In the end, Charlie and Nicole are too distinctly drawn to be confused for anyone except themselves.

Driver and Johansson are superb, nailing the little everyday moments as well as the long, drawn-out conversations, including one ferocious no-holds-barred argument that's likely to end up in actors' audition handbooks. You believe in the relationship these two shared, and you can see their lingering love for each other even as their life together is ending.

The audience is likely to come out of "Marriage Story" arguing over where its sympathies lie, and it's a sign of the movie's integrity that the answer isn't clear. Some may take issue with Nicole's aggressive legal tactics, though others may see them as an act of defiance against a partner who rarely considered her needs or wishes. Charlie does get more screen time, and his character does ultimately leave the deeper impression. But that may be because he's the one who has more growing to do. Maybe no one outside a marriage can know the truth of it, but Baumbach brings the audience awfully close.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show, our guest will be Judd Apatow, who's edited a new book about his friend and mentor, the late comedian Garry Shandling. After his death, Apatow helped go through Shandling's house. Part of what he found was 30 years' worth of journal entries revealing the insecurities and emotional suffering that Shandling turned into comedy. I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.
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