In the opening moments of writer/director Noah Baumbach's heartbreakingly honest film Marriage Story, the two central characters read lists of the things they love about each other. It is the brightest moment of the film, cut short by a hard cut to the couple in counseling, silent.
The central couple is Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), New York theater stars. She was his lead actress, he was her director. But the relationship has fallen apart by the time we meet them. The bulk of the film is them navigating the horrors of divorce, sharply punctuated by moments of humor. It is a testament to Baumbach's vision that he can find humor in a scene where divorce papers are being served. He turns what could be heartbreaking into something akin to screwball comedy but never short changes the pain in the scene.
Through the film's 136 running time, scenes unfold with a sense of lived-in realness that makes the film deeply personal. The couple ends up getting lawyers involved, a trio of personalities played by Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda. Each provides details on the divorce process, showing how personal feelings fade in the back when two people have to split their assets. And yet, those personal feelings still bubble through. Two knockout scenes punctuate how divorce is more than about who gets the house, one is an argument than devolves into cruelty and the other on Halloween as both parents try to take their son trick or treating.
Marriage Story is the feel-bad film of the year but also one of devastating power. Neither Charlie nor Nicole are made to be monsters, both have done some cruel things to each other. That being said, the film comes from Charlie's point of view. There is a final moment in which Drive performs a song from Stephen Sondheim's Company that will break your heart.
The film would be nothing without the two central performances. Driver is wonderfully layered as the egocentric yet compassionate Charlie. Johansson is a revelation and has never been better as Nicole. She gives a fearless performance that never allows the audience to hate Nicole as Charlie does at times.
Marriage Story is one of Baumbach's best films. It is a tad too long and punishing, both things that dilute its power. However, these are minor quips in a film that packs such emotional truth and tenderness.