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'Marriage Story' review: Divorce, American style, showcasing Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in one of the year's finest achievements

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Two songs from Stephen Sondheim's "Company" -- "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," used as a party diversion, and "Being Alive," deployed as cathartic expression of discovery -- make their entrance late in the game of "Marriage Story." But there's another Sondheim song from that score, one not used in writer-director Noah Baumbach's film, evoking the perplexation of the characters played by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver even more fully.

It's "Sorry/Grateful." In "Company" it's sung by middle-aged men who have entered into the bargain of their own marriage stories and whose marriages, at least in most revivals of the musical, don't seem like much of a bargain. The song is as optimistic or as pessimistic as your reading of it; it captures the extremes by acknowledging the everyday difficulties and priceless rewards of everything else.

Does it all work out for the theater director and the actress in "Marriage Story"? That, too, depends on your personal optimism or pessimism. Baumbach, who for a time was married to actress Jennifer Jason-Leigh, has made a plainly but not entirely autobiographical account of the end of a marriage. Specifically his film -- beautiful, witty, sad and hopeful -- concerns the two or three dog years (i.e., they feel like 14 or 21, not two or three) that come after the end. The story also involves an eight-year-old boy growing up, trying to learn two new languages: the Divorced Mother tongue and Divorced Dadspeak.

Already, plenty of friends of mine have decided they're in no mood for this one, because they've been there once or twice. All I can do, really, is tell them, and you, this movie is terrific.

You can look at "Marriage Story" as a break-up drama laced with comedy. Or you can look at it as a high comedy of divorce manners, withering as well as humane and forgiving. I've liked or loved just about everything Baumbach has done since his previous, semi-autobiographical divorce-themed wince-fest "The Squid and the Whale." But "Marriage Story" feels to me like the first of his post-vicious-period comedies that constitutes a major achievement.

In voiceover at the outset we hear from avant-garde stage wunderkind Charlie (Driver), who's listing all the things he loves about his artistic partner and wife, actress Nicole. Then we hear her list regarding her feelings for him, equally loving. It's an exposition-friendly, cinematically brisk way to introduce the main characters. Already, though, they're apparently past the point of return; their lists have been written at the behest of their divorce mediator.

 

"We're a New York family," Charlie says here and there, in various shades of defiance, in "Marriage Story." Nicole has left Charlie's theater company and its Broadway-bound staging of the Greek tragedy "Electra" because it's pilot season in Hollywood. Her TV project, an environmental dystopian piece of cheese, may get picked up. Nicole and son Henry (Azhy Robertson) join Nicole's family in LA; Julie Hagerty, in a crafty, dear comic turn, plays her breathless industry-bred mother. In one of Baumbach's running gags, everybody keeps mentioning "the space" when they talk about LA's virtues compared to New York City. But Baumbach isn't settling for what Woody Allen did in "Annie Hall." Charlie may be a narcissist and we hear, briefly, of an infidelity, but he and Nicole feel like people, not characters. And not caricatures.

The split begins amicably enough. "Sorry I look so schleppy," Nicole's lawyer, a divorce whiz, tells her, not looking remotely schleppy. Nicole tells her: "I don't want any money or anything." Laura Dern's oh, honey nonverbal reaction to that line, which is tapped visually into place perfectly by the editor Jennifer Lame, becomes one of a hundred character details to savor here.

Dealing with a lawyered-up ex-to-be, Charlie toggles between coasts and, in LA, between two legal reps, one a semi-retired sweetheart (Alan Alda), the other a $950/hour killer-diller (Ray Liotta). The casting in Baumbach's picture defies improvement. Scenes that arrive at dramatically strategic points in the story, such as the visitation from the court-ordered evaluator deadpanned brilliantly by Martha Kelly, end up being hilarious in peculiar and peculiarly honest ways.

The movie tips its scrupulous balance slightly in the final scenes toward Charlie's viewpoint; he gets to sing "Being Alive," as well as earning a key scene with his son in the epilogue. I noticed it more the second viewing than the first. (I saw "Marriage Story" twice, once for each of my own divorces.) The performances at the heart and center of it, though, fill it up to the brim. The results are full and lived-in. Johansson and Driver knew what they had to do with this elemental material and its wild mood swings. The climactic confrontation, set in Charlie's underfurnished LA apartment, brings out a frequently hidden ferocity in both actors. They're inspired scene partners, even when they're apart.

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