“Marriage Story” is a tale of a decaying relationship that has heartbreak and heartache to spare. The film almost too casually observes stage director Charlie (Adam Driver) and his actor wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) as they struggle through their fractured union and are pushed to extremes by a grueling dual-coast divorce. Things get ugly, and they get ugly quickly. It’s not feel-good entertainment, as the audience is privy to the most intimate details of a marriage in shambles.
Charlie and Nicole strive to make their divorce as effortless and amicable as possible, but it isn’t long before warfare erupts through the legal system and an emotional tug-of-war with their son (Azhy Robertson). The story starts with a look back on the positive aspects of their longtime relationship, and slowly unravels into a long therapy session. The audience can keep their distance at first, but a mutual respect soon manifests into anger, and there’s no way to avoid the squirming discomfort of being part of the couple’s bickering brawls. It’s one of the more painful movies you’ll see.
There’s a delicate compassion to writer-director Noah Baumbach‘s work here, and his story is one that’s just as hopeful as it is devastating. The dialogue is overwritten but still meaningful, and the film suggests that it’s speaking profound, universal personal truths, even if you can’t wholly relate. It reminds me a lot of “Before Midnight,” but where Jesse and Celine are a couple you actively want to root for, Nicole and Charlie are not. These two should be divorced, yet the story makes you care about where each of them eventually end up.
The film is stacked with award-worthy performances at every turn, but this is Driver’s pièce de résistance. It’s the best performance of his career, as he inhabits his character with wit, charm, grief, agony, and anger — and he makes running through this gamut of emotions seem effortless and authentic. Laura Dern is a standout in the supporting cast as a powerful Los Angeles divorce attorney, and she practically steals every scene she’s in. Baumbach has managed to draw out some of the finest performances of the year, and that’s what makes this film a must-see.