Noah Baumbach’s autopsy of the dissolution of a marriage is at times too painful to watch, but do not avert your eyes because you’ll miss a beautifully rendered story. The couple, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, are authentic, their natural affinity for each other is undeniable, even in the moments of their greatest frustration, anger and disappointment. As they lawyer up and offer themselves to the vagaries of the judicial system, playing nice while providing the damaging information necessary to screw each other, they can’t shuck off the easy familiarity of their years together. During a contentious settlement meeting with their lawyers, he agonizes over the order-in lunch menu until she takes it from him and selects his meal. At the worst times of their break-up, he still relies on her to cut his hair. The film is loaded with these kinds of searing and telling vignettes.
Ultimately, however, I can’t tell if the film’s greatest omission is a flaw or a merit. While the picture opens with each character listing what they like most about the other as part of pre-divorce therapy, and you sense their mutual admiration, there seems to be nothing deeper. We seem them as a functioning unit and close, even tender, by dint of their proximity and years. But Baumbach never shows them in full bloom, which could mean that they never really were (a theory certainly supported by Johansson’s recitation of their meeting and union; she was essentially running from a deadening relationship) or that it just doesn’t matter, as it likely doesn’t matter in any divorce.
The film also makes you take sides, against your better judgment. We fancy ourselves mature in our awareness that no one is at fault in a divorce, that the bad behavior preceding a break-up is evidence of the weakness of the union as opposed to villainy. But even knowing that, you champion one or the other even as you try to maintain equanimity, making you complicit in the fight. Driver appears to be the less adversarial, more “go along, get along” of the two, so when you see him driven to speak the unspeakable or roar, “then she wins!” to his reasonable lawyer, I was with him, just as I am sure others were with Johannson at varying times in the back-and-forth (she has read his emails to his lover, and you can see those words burning in her eyes).
This is not to say there aren’t problems. Tonally, the picture is haphazard. Johansson’s mother and sister (Julie Hagerty and Merritt Weaver), for example, are James L Brooks, quirky and broad, and a court-ordered expert assigned to observe the child with Driver is distracting, creepy cat lady weird. The lawyers (Alan Alda, Laura Dern, and Ray Liotta) bring a necessary cynicism, but are so flamboyant at times, they can feel cartoonish. The child, an 8 year old boy, is spoiled, whiny, incompetent, cannot sleep alone, has problems pooping, can’t spell “Leggo”, find plants “scary”, doesn’t know whether the power is on or off in a lit room, and demands play time at the worst possible moments. I assume Baumbach was trying to show the progeny of a highly educated, upper middle class, artistic couple in strife, but the kid is so obnoxious, he’s a bad exemplar of what they are fighting so tenaciously for. The child in Kramer v Kramer was obstinate and no picnic, but you didn’t recoil from him, for good reason. As a viewer, you shouldn’t be saying to yourself, “you know, losing primary custody isn’t the worst thing.”
And the Randy Newman score is just a dreadful fit, Toy Story shoehorned into Marriage Story.
But no matter where you come down, on the performances alone, and particularly Dern’s speech on how society views men and women as parents and Driver’s lament via song, it’s well worth it.