Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a director. Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is an actress. For years, they worked together with the same avant-garde theater company, and for years they were also husband and wife, with a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), who is now 8 years old. At home one night at her Brooklyn apartment, Charlie offers Nicole a note about her latest performance, a long-standing habit that seems particularly superfluous as she is about to leave their show and their wedding. But he offers anyway: "In the end, I could tell you were pushing for emotion."
Like almost everything else in "Wedding Story," Noah Baumbach's sizzling, painful, inexhaustibly rich new movie, the line serves more than one purpose. It's a power play, a chance for Charlie to knock Nicole under the guise of feedback. It is also an honest vision among creative professionals who have built their lives together around their art. It's the film's challenge to itself, a promise that Driver and Johansson, both in top form, will not suffer the same tension. There will be no pressure for emotion here.
Above all, it offers a crucial clue as to what “Wedding Story” is. Of course, this is the end of a relationship, and Baumbach, an unrivaled observer of domestic insignificance and passive-aggressive behavior, puts all the unpleasant details under his dramatic microscope. Their combination of rigor and empathy has won many critical superlatives, and I am not here to dispute any of them. "Marriage Story" is an emotionally tearing experience, an almost perfect elegy for a beautifully flawed couple, a broken family classic alongside "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Fanny and Alexander" to name two films that Baumbach mentions visually. on here .
But it's also something else: not just one of the best movies you'll see this year, but also one of the best acting movies of the year. This should be a small surprise. From “Margot in Marriage” to “The Meyerowitz Stories,” Baumbach has long been interested in the lives of privileged and cultured individuals, with a tendency to dramatize. And if every marriage requires an element of pretense, divorce may require a total farce, especially if both parties are committed to the appearance of a smooth and friendly decoupling.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in the movie "Marriage Story".
(Wilson Webb / Netflix)
The initial script is one they wrote, at the instruction of a mediator, in the form of personal letters in memory of their relationship. We heard them read these letters aloud, accompanied by flashbacks of happier moments with Henry and set in a lovely and pitiful Randy Newman score. There are home-cooked meals and monopoly games, afternoon walks and sleeping rituals. Charlie speaks fondly of Nicole's kindness and kindness and her gifts as an actress. Nicole talks about the good father Charlie is, how much she admires his self-sufficiency and initiative. Of course, these two know each other from the inside out.
The actors seem to know them the same way. Nicole may seem the most recessive figure at first, but in Johansson's tremulous but vigorous performance, her laid-back vibration can suddenly harden into steel. Charlie is taller and stronger, but also more innocent, and Driver uses his huge physique Franken to suggest an authority figure and a grown child. The difficulties the two actors face are considerable – expository monologues filmed in time-consuming demands, conversations that lead them to a whole spectrum of contradictory emotions – but they do not face as much challenge as they absorb. Together they transform Baumbach's acerbic words and his own instinctive gestures into the language of a admittedly real relationship.
This relationship, as rustic as it may seem in retrospect, brings a history of unspoken resentment and unequal commitment. The separation of barbers comes at a time of great professional opportunity for both of them: Charlie's play, an impressive modern update on Sophocles's "Electra," is linked to Broadway, while Nicole landed the lead role in a TV pilot in Los Angeles. , where she grew up. She and Henry move to Los Angeles for a spell that Charlie assumes will be temporary, although it is clear that her assumptions – in addition to a workplace infidelity – were what motivated Nicole to start the divorce proceedings in the first place.
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in the movie "Marriage Story".
(Wilson Webb / Netflix)
The metaphor of acting becomes explicit when Charlie leaves to meet Nicole in Los Angeles, and she enlists the help of her mother, Sandra (Julie Hagerty) and sister Cassie (Merritt Wever), to greet him with divorce papers. Sandra and Cassie are also actresses, and the ensuing comedy of errors is like an experimental play, or perhaps a makeshift comedy routine. No one is more taken by surprise than Charlie: who changed the script without his permission? Didn't they agree to do it without lawyers?
Maybe so – or maybe, as Nicole's formidable lawyer Nora (a splendid Laura Dern) suggested, Charlie always hopes that everything is on her terms. Left struggling to find a lawyer in Los Angeles, even as labor pressures rise in New York, Charlie must choose between Jay (Ray Liotta), a high-priced barracuda who rivals Nora in cruelty, and the kindest, most approachable Bert. , more affordable (which addresses the case with warmth but with little optimism. There is no real victory in a $ 50 billion a year divorce sector that encourages its clients to behave as irrationally as possible, even if it leaves them dry emotionally and financially.
Advocacy on both sides expands this tense domestic drama into a furiously bearded ensemble comedy in which everyone must play their part to perfection. Nora and Jay know that their job is not just to litigate, but to accomplish, to bring some histrionics to the joint autopsy they are performing at the barber's wedding. Charlie and Nicole are also performing, rehearsing their testimonies and exaggerating each other's worst qualities for the most favorable outcome.
To a degree that is exciting and depressing, Baumbach shows us how the most bitter divorces do not end a marriage, but poison their own spirit. Innocent comments are highlighted. Forgivable frauds are armed. Los Angeles and New York are dragged into the debate, twin cultural capitals that set Nicole's ideal lifestyle against Charlie's. All of this unfolds in a perfectly realized setting of cold meeting rooms, bland offices, and a Los Angeles apartment that Charlie organizes to become a presentable home for him and Henry. (Exquisitely not shown cinematography and production design are by Robbie Ryan and Jade Healy, respectively.)
Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in the movie "Marriage Story".
(Wilson Webb / Netflix)
Speaking of Henry, a sweet, friendly, ordinary boy engaged in a bitterly protracted custody battle, he becomes a prize and an inconvenience, a weight and an abstraction, something his parents end up fighting more for his benefit than for him. . There is an especially cruel irony here: relentlessly playing good parents — literally, when an appraiser (Martha Kelly) comes to observe Charlie with Henry — drains the time and energy needed to be the good parents they always were.
This is not the first time that Baumbach, now 50, has led us through the emotional wreckage of a broken marriage, as he did 14 years ago in "The Squid and the Whale." This image was neatly drawn from elements of her parents' divorce. , and "History of Marriage," though not explicitly autobiographical, have already drawn comparisons with Baumbach's.
You can watch this movie looking for clues and confessionals, or at least trying to gauge their sympathies. Do they lie with Nicole, who seems to have sacrificed and suffered most during the marriage? Or with Charlie, who has much less family support and seems much more likely to be the replacement on the director's screen?
Perhaps the surest sign of Baumbach's integrity is that he refuses to provide an easy answer. His writings were rarely more incisive and almost certainly never more generous or forgiving. Nicole's aggressive legal strategy can seem very calculating in half, unless you understand that it is a long overdue recovery act by a woman tired of setting aside her own needs and dreams. Driver performance achieves the deepest and most persistent impact, in part because Charlie gets the courtesy of more screen time, but it may well be because he has more learning and growth to do.
And learn and grow, it does. At the end of "Wedding Story," Nicole and Charlie sing numbers from Stephen Sondheim's 1970 "Company," about marriage and its discontents. These are lovely moments, richly textured snapshots of two people who have always been immersed in the arts. But when Charlie launches into his solo ("Someone to hug me too much / Someone to hurt me too much"), you see something almost sublime: a man who has managed to embrace his pain and feel more alive, even hopeful, for that. For a shimmering moment, giving a presentation and telling the truth suddenly becomes one, never to be separated.
& # 39; Marriage Story & # 39;
Evaluation: R, for full language and sexual references
Runtime: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Playing: It opens on November 6 at Vista Theater in Los Angeles and Landmark in West Los Angeles; begins airing December 6 on Netflix