Immediately after watching “Marriage Story,” which could just as easily have been titled “Divorce Story,” I spoke to a friend about what we had just witnessed.
She spoke briefly about her own divorce a few years ago. I spoke briefly about my parents’ divorce many years ago.
Tears came to her eyes, surprising her, and I choked up too.
Then we smiled, and we laughed, and we talked about moments from the movie that we recognized from our own life experiences.
“Marriage Story” charges all of the emotions, and that’s because it so authentically presents moments — the love of children split between separating adults, the things said that are hard to take back, the pain, awkward reunions — that anyone touched by divorce will recognize.
And that’s almost everyone.
But the movie also finds a broader appeal and isn’t a “downer” about divorce, as it finds a dark humor inherent in these situations, and in life, that is sometimes absurd and sometimes hysterical when family gets involved.
And what this Oscar-worthy movie does better than perhaps any film on the subject is to show how one of the worst things a person can experience can become a fresh start and, ultimately, something that’s healthier for everyone involved.
“Marriage Story” is rare and raw, and it’s not the first time that writer-director Noah Baumbach has examined divorce, as he received an Oscar nomination for his 2006 comedy-drama “The Squid and the Whale,” which included all the him-against-her melodrama that this film largely avoids.
Baumbach’s couple is portrayed by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as a pair of artists with a young son who are torn between which coast to live on and work.
Charlie is a New York theater company founder who wants to continue what he’s built for a decade; Nicole is a former teen movie star who has turned down Hollywood opportunities during those years to take on roles in her husband’s plays and her role as a mother.
But now, as his latest production is getting a Broadway run (his career is still ascending), and she’s been offered a TV pilot with a big paycheck in California (allowing her to again pursue her delayed dreams), a breaking point has been reached.
The divorce is happening from the opening scene of the movie, in a beautiful and heartbreaking scene, as a mediator has asked each of them to write down the things they remember about the other that made them fall in love in the first place.
This sets everything in motion, and it explains how rich a marriage this was, and how bright and funny these people are, and why Baumbach’s best New York domestic comedies have so often been compared to Woody Allen’s best work.
We come to realize that we like both of these people. We’re rooting for them to be happy, all the while knowing that a conventional “movie happy ending” isn’t happening.
Baumbach stages what becomes a cross-country divorce drama with colorful side characters, turning “Marriage Story” into an ensemble story.
Like the wonderful Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s mom, who’s also a former actress with a good heart and a cute crush on Charlie, much to Nicole’s chagrin.
Then there’s the lawyers, starting with Laura Dern switching between compassion and vicious as a Hollywood hotshot in heels repping Nicole, so good that she’s going to be in some awards conversation.
She’s going up against Charlie’s changing defense strategies, from Alan Alda in sleepy, Charlie’s-going-to-get-killed mode to Ray Liotta in street-fight mode, as people in this situation feel threatened and fight back.
Johansson (who has never been better at displaying this range of emotions) and Driver (superb trying to be a great artist and a great dad) make us believe that they want to do it amicably, split things fairly and show all their love to their son.
But Baumbach shows what too often becomes reality: People listen to others’ warnings and go into protection mode, sometimes out of fear and sometimes for “the win.”
Some of this is familiar, and while it’s not as powerful as “Kramer vs. Kramer” depicted 40 years ago, that’s also not Baumbach’s focus.
He is more interested in depicting the idea of that saying that “divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”
Hatred does not exist between these two people, but regret does have its place, which makes the one frightful exchange — multiple minutes that see a decade’s worth of words left unsaid explode into accusations — all the more unsettling.
Baumbach uses tight close-ups to heighten moments both happy and painful in surprising ways.
For all of its focus on the process of divorce, “Marriage Story” is really an expression of love.
Love from how it begins to how it changes and how life goes on, hopefully with some degree of respect and affection between people who remember why they fell in love in the first place.