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.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta
Written and directed by: Noah Baumbach
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes