“Marriage Story” begins on a sweet note, as Charlie (Adam Driver) and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) take turns enumerating the other’s most special qualities. Immediately the tone is set: This will be an observant, compassionate film, full of deep feeling and tenderness.
It will also be a film fueled by reversals, its bait-and-switch tactics becoming clear in the movie’s first big reveal: that Charlie and Nicole are reciting their lists, not as endearments, but as assignments from the mediator who is assisting them in their separation.
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, “Marriage Story” is nothing new within a cinematic canon that includes such classic breakup movies as “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “The War of the Roses” and Baumbach’s own toxic imploding-family drama “The Squid and the Whale.” Here, he brings his familiar brand of talky intellectualism and humor — set in the milieu of faux erudition and unexamined privilege that leaves so many of his detractors cold — to a genre that, for its familiar tones of rue and recrimination, still exerts an irresistible pull.
In large part, this is thanks to the consistently outstanding actors who populate “Marriage Story” — not just the two impressive leads, but an ensemble of funny, first-rate supporting players. But it also comes down to Baumbach’s taste, from the expressive spaces he chooses to film in to enlisting a maestro like Randy Newman to compose the film’s delicate, exquisitely calibrated musical score.
Charlie and Nicole, it turns out, are a New York couple, the center of an artsy constellation that revolves around his theater troupe, in which she has been the longtime leading lady. On the surface, they have it made — similar to the invidiously idealized young couple of Baumbach’s “While We’re Young,” in which Driver co-starred. But Nicole is dissatisfied: She misses Los Angeles, where she grew up, and she resents having subsumed her own creative life to parenthood and Charlie’s artistic ego.
Thus ensues, not just a battle of the sexes but a battle between the coasts, which allows Baumbach to engage in “Annie Hall”-ish jokes about L.A. (“You can’t beat the space” becomes a running gag) and to poke fun at the show people with whom Nicole feels most at home. Among “Marriage Story’s” chief pleasures is watching the great Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty bring flawless timing and shrewd comic sensibilities to their roles as Nicole’s sister and mother, whose reflexive self-dramatizing extends even to the simple act of serving someone divorce papers.
That sequence is played for unexpected laughs by Baumbach, who has said that he wanted “Marriage Story” to contain elements of screwball comedy as well as classic domestic drama and tough legal procedurals. When the lawyers become involved, things get even more amusing, especially when Nicole hires a sophisticated attorney named Nora (Laura Dern) who is dressed in impeccable stilettoes and skinny jeans when they first meet. “Sorry I look so schleppy,” she says blithely.
And, inevitably, when the lawyers become involved, things get even nastier. “Marriage Story” isn’t the chronicle of a disintegrating relationship as much as one evolving under severe duress, as Charlie and Nicole renegotiate the terms of their engagement, custody of their son and — perhaps most brutally — the narrative of their life together. At first, Charlie hires an avuncular softy (hilariously portrayed by Alan Alda) to represent him, but then is convinced to go with Jay (a fearsome and funny Ray Liotta), a shark all too willing to go dorsal fin-to-dorsal fin with Nora. (“Coke?” he asks Charlie, hoping to expose Nicole’s worst habits in court. “Not in any real way,” Charlie replies thoughtfully. “She was addicted to Tums for a while.”)
At its most excruciating, “Marriage Story” documents how love becomes distorted and disfigured; those cute little foibles that once made Charlie and Nicole adorable to one another are swiftly magnified, weaponized and lobbed like so many fatal grenades. But somehow Baumbach manages to find a nugget of humor at even the most painful points, whether it’s a lunch break during a tense legal negotiation, or a disastrous appointment between Charlie and an affectless social worker that literally leaves blood on the floor.
Can this divorce be saved? For all its satirical jabs at bourgeois mores and self-involved artists (a MacArthur “genius” grant pops up for a cameo), “Marriage Story” is suffused with humanism and forgiveness — a tone that people familiar with Baumbach’s real-life split from Jennifer Jason Leigh might find more than a little self-serving, but that saves the enterprise from being insufferably maudlin. To be sure, things get ugly in “Marriage Story,” but Baumbach has a constant eye out for fleeting consolations: When Charlie goes to a bar with members of his theater company (a Greek chorus of theater kids), he’s persuaded to get up and sing a tune. What ensues is a quietly electrifying rendition of “Being Alive” that might not be structurally necessary, but offers a reflective moment of respite and simple beauty.
As he does in “The Report,” also opening Friday, Driver delivers an honest, transparent performance in “Marriage Story,” in which he and Johansson are asked to be tender, lacerating, lighthearted and bitter practically in the same scene. Both of them are equal to the task, forming an indomitable two-person fulcrum around which this funny-sad, happy-harrowing movie revolves. Maybe there’s nothing terribly new in “Marriage Story.” But it manages to make you forget that very fact, in surprising, affecting, singular and revelatory ways.
Three and one-half stars. Rated R. Contains coarse language throughout and sexual references. 136 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.