From left, Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver star in “Marriage Story.” (Courtesy Wilson Webb/Netflix)

From left, Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver star in “Marriage Story.” (Courtesy Wilson Webb/Netflix)

‘Marriage Story’ a riveting, moving look at divorce

Noah Baumbach offers gold mine of emotions in heartfelt film

Something wonderful has happened to Noah Baumbach, whose divorce dramedy “Marriage Story” opens at the Clay on Friday.

While Baumbach has long been known for his sharp writing and piercing humor — ingredients that have made his self-absorbed characters watchable and sometimes fascinating — his new film also glows with humanity and feeling.

Like Baumbach’s earlier divorce movie, “The Squid and the Whale,” “Marriage Story” contains comic elements. Its emotional focus, though, is on the adults, not their offspring, and, as Baumbach protagonists go, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are unusually likable.

Charlie, a theater director, and Nicole, the principal actress in Charlie’s avant-garde company, live in New York City with 8-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson). The couple have decided to divorce.

In voice-over, Nicole and Charlie state things they like about each other — Charlie dresses well, Nicole can open jars — in a tone that hints at their still-existing love.

Their fond words are their responses to an exercise assigned by a mediator. The counseling session goes poorly. A similar fate awaits the pair’s plan to make their divorce friendly.

The separation begins geographically, when Nicole arrives in Hollywood to film a TV pilot. Energized, she hires high-powered divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) to set the wheels in motion.

In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, the papers are served, bumblingly.

Needing his own attorney, Charlie hires Bert (Alan Alda), a nonconfrontational and unpolished sort. When nastiness becomes essential, outrageously expensive, ruthless Jay (Ray Liotta) comes aboard.

Antagonisms intensify. The divorce process gets farcical.

Baumbach presents the ordeal from both protagonists’ perspectives. Charlie can’t fathom that Nicole would want to stay in California. “We’re a New York family,” he states repeatedly.

Nicole feels that when living and working with Charlie, she boosted his career but suppressed her own dreams.

Were Baumbach a lesser filmmaker, Charlie and Nicole would likely be caricatures of privileged, self-regarding, artistic types.

But as conceived by Baumbach and played, fabulously, by Driver and Johansson, they deliver a gold mine of emotion: hurt, anger, confusion, guilt and a surprising amount of sweetness.

Baumbach also triumphs with his scathing portrayal of the legal system’s obliviousness to human need.

This is a moving and mesmerizing movie.

With brilliant subtlety, Driver brings to the surface Charlie’s buried frustration and aggression. When Charlie gives his son a Frankenstein Halloween costume. and the boy rejects it, in favor of a ninja getup, we feel the sting.

Driver sings, too. His heartfelt rendition of the Stephen Sondheim song “Being Alive” is captivating.

Johansson, whose character Baumbach seems to view as the aggressor, makes Nicole sympathetic when delivering a searing monologue telling her story.

An intense insult-hurling argument between Charlie and Nicole hits deeply.

Also terrific is Dern’s Nora. Her entrance, in which she begins with “Sorry to look so schleppy,” is particularly special.

REVIEW

Marriage Story

Three and a half stars

Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta

Written and directed by: Noah Baumbach

Rated: R

Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes

Movies and TV

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

San Francisco Park Rangers have seen their budget and staffing levels increase significantly since 2014. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Citations for being in SF’s public parks after midnight soar

Data shows disproportionate impact on Black residents

Parents and students line up socially distanced before the first day of in-person learning at Bret Harte Elementary School on Monday, April 12, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
‘It’s a beautiful sight’: The first students return to the classroom

San Francisco’s youngest public school students stepped into classrooms for in-person learning… Continue reading

File
Latest Breed nominee for Police Commission moves forward

Immigration attorney Jim Byrne clears Board of Supervisors committee

A rally at Golden Gate Park on Sunday April 11 drew a large crowd in support of calls to keep JFK Drive closed to traffic. (Emily Huston/Special to the S.F. Examiner)
Hundreds rally for “JFK Thrive,” not JFK Drive

By Emily Huston More than two hundred gathered on a warm Sunday… Continue reading

American Conservatory Theater’s digital reading of “Arms and the Man” features, top (from left), James Brannon and Kimberly Kimberly Hébert Gregory; Allie Marie Evans, center; and bottom (from left), Danny Scheie and Ariel Shafir. (Courtesy American Conservatory Theater)
ACT streams fun reading of Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’

Romantic comedy classic entertains, even in Zoom boxes

Most Read