Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a director. Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is an actress. For years they have worked together at the same avant-garde theater company, and for years they have also been husband and wife, with a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), who is now 8. At home one night in their Brooklyn apartment, Charlie offers Nicole a note on her latest performance, a longtime habit that seems particularly superfluous since she is about to exit the show and their marriage. But he offers it anyway: "At the end, I could tell you were pushing for the emotion."
Like almost everything else in "Marriage Story," Noah Baumbach's scalding, wrenching and inexhaustibly rich new movie, the line serves more than one purpose. It's a power move, a chance for Charlie to take Nicole down a peg in the guise of feedback. It's also an honest insight between creative professionals who have built their life together around their art. It's the movie's challenge to itself, a promise that Driver and Johansson, both in peak form, will experience none of the same strain. There will be no pushing for the emotion here.
Most of all, it offers a crucial clue as to what "Marriage Story" is about. Of course it's about the end of a relationship, and Baumbach, a peerless observer of domestic pettiness and passive-aggressive behavior, puts every unflattering detail under his dramatic microscope. His combination of rigor and empathy has already earned any number of critical superlatives, and I'm not here to dispute any of them. "Marriage Story" is an emotionally lacerating experience, a nearly flawless elegy for a beautifully flawed couple, a broken-family classic to set beside "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Fanny and Alexander," to name two films that Baumbach references visually here.
But it is also something else: not just one of the best-acted movies you'll see this year but also one of the year's best movies about acting. This should come as little surprise. From "Margot at the Wedding" to "The Meyerowitz Stories," Baumbach has long been interested in the lives of privileged, cultured individuals with a tendency to self-dramatize. And if every marriage requires an element of pretense, then divorce may demand an all-out charade, especially if both parties are committed to the appearance of a smooth, amicable uncoupling.
Their initial script is one they have written, at a mediator's instruction, in the form of personal letters memorializing their relationship. We hear them read those letters in voice-over, accompanied by flashbacks to happier times with Henry and set to a lovely, plaintive score by Randy Newman. There are home-cooked meals and games of Monopoly, afternoon outings and bedtime rituals. Charlie speaks affectionately of Nicole's kindness and klutziness, and of her gifts as an actress. Nicole talks about what a good dad Charlie is, how much she admires his self-sufficiency and initiative. It's clear that these two know each other inside out.
The actors seem to know them just as intimately. Nicole may seem the more recessive figure at first, but in Johansson's tremulous but forceful performance, her easygoing vibe can harden suddenly into steel. Charlie is louder and brasher but also more guileless, and Driver uses his towering Franken-physique to suggest both a figure of authority and an overgrown child.
The difficulties facing both actors are considerable -- expository monologues shot in demanding long takes, conversations that take them across an entire spectrum of contradictory emotions -- but they don't rise to each challenge so much as absorb it. Together they turn Baumbach's acerbic words and their own instinctive gestures into the language of a recognizably real relationship.
That relationship, rosy as it may look in retrospect, carries a history of unspoken resentments and uneven compromises. The Barbers' separation comes at a moment of great professional opportunity for both of them: Charlie's play, a striking modern update of Sophocles' "Electra," is Broadway-bound, while Nicole has landed the lead role in a TV pilot in Los Angeles, where she grew up. She and Henry relocate to L.A. for a spell that Charlie assumes will be temporary, though it becomes clear that his assumptions -- plus a spot of workplace infidelity -- are what motivated Nicole to begin divorce proceedings in the first place.
The acting metaphor becomes explicit when Charlie flies out to meet Nicole in L.A., and she enlists the help of her mother, Sandra (Julie Hagerty), and sister, Cassie (Merritt Wever), to greet him with divorce papers. Both Sandra and Cassie are actresses too, and the ensuing comedy of errors plays like a piece of experimental theater, or perhaps an awkward improv comedy routine. No one is more thrown off-guard than Charlie: Who changed the script without his permission? Didn't they agree to do this without lawyers?
Maybe they did -- or maybe, as suggested by Nicole's formidable attorney, Nora (a splendid, take-no-prisoners Laura Dern), Charlie always expects everything to be on his terms. Left scrambling to find L.A. counsel even as work pressures mount in New York, Charlie must choose between Jay (Ray Liotta), a high-priced barracuda who rivals Nora in ruthlessness, and the kinder, more affordable Bert (Alan Alda, wonderful), who approaches the case with welcome warmth but little optimism. There's no real victory in a $50-billion-per-year divorce industry that incentivizes customers to behave as unreasonably as possible, even as it bleeds them dry emotionally and financially.