The movie is an epic told on the tiniest stage, magnifying the minute and irrelevant-seeming details that can either strengthen a partnership or end it. Though the film has a balanced storytelling structure, mostly devoting its first half to Nicole and its second to Charlie, Baumbach develops his characters differently. Marriage Story begins as the Barbers are initiating divorce proceedings (their lists were the product of couples’ mediation), and Nicole is already quite clear-eyed about the rot in their relationship. For Charlie, it takes the entire movie to get anywhere near that level of emotional awareness. In charting the path of a breakup, Baumbach is intent on depicting its asymmetry. Nicole and Charlie’s problems arise not just from conflicts in their careers and personal outlooks, but also from their inability to understand each other’s state of mind.
The film’s leads are two major movie stars, and there’s a cleverness to their casting. Driver has frequently collaborated with Baumbach and has emerged as an acting powerhouse in recent films such as Paterson, BlacKkKlansman, and Silence. In Marriage Story, Driver is his usual broad-shouldered, singularly handsome self, playing an acclaimed New York City theater director who deflects praise with practiced awkwardness. But as Charlie’s divorce evolves into a protracted negotiation of his future relationship with his 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), Driver makes himself seem small and vulnerable, hunching his shoulders and moving with the hesitance of a confused child.
Johansson’s role is closer to her reality. Nicole is an actor who made her name as a Hollywood starlet, then moved to Brooklyn and spent years tied to Charlie’s theater company. In the film, she’s working on a big-budget TV show, struggling to find her footing in her new life and energized by the challenge. As Nicole returns to L.A., changes her personal style, and eases back into a social world she long ago abandoned, Johansson imbues her character with verve and uncertain excitement. Both halves of Marriage Story involve laughter and tears, but Baumbach concentrates on making each character feel distinct rather than syncing up their plot arcs.
Echoing 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer, the canonical classic in the divorce genre, Marriage Story derives much of its drama from the byzantine details of the legal process. Even though Charlie and Nicole pledge not to drag out their breakup by bringing lawyers into it, reality intervenes, and both hire people who recommend the most mercenary courses of action. The introduction of Laura Dern as Nicole’s attorney, Nora Fanshaw, is one of the film’s high points. In a stunning monologue by Johansson, Nicole pours her heart out to a near-stranger and feels empowered by Nora’s empathy and tactical advice. Charlie visits two very different counselors, the gentle Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) and the cold-blooded Jay (Ray Liotta), neither of whom has any compassion for Nicole—if only because their job won’t allow it.