If you’ve ever been divorced or thinking about it, or just contemplating marriage, “Marriage Story” should make you pay attention. Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s film, showcased at the 57th New York Film Festival before going into commercial release, is an intensely dramatized textbook story of the legal and personal antagonisms that can take hold when couples decide to part.
Cast as the warring pair are Charlie, played by Adam Driver, and Nicole, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, and since they are at the top of their acting game here, the film has a built-in compelling edge. Baumbach’s screenplay is savvy, as is his direction, although there is a point during the legal entanglements at which the film seems to grind on too long Yet the legal details are what heighten the fascination with the story.
Charlie and Nicole, married ten years, have an eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Charlie is directing a New York Theater company that is close to his heart. Nicole, who is from Los Angeles, has been his leading actress and has moved to New York to marry him. There have been all the earmarks of a couple getting on well, but geography intrudes.
Nicole is given the opportunity to star in a pilot for what could become a hit television show. It is her opportunity for a big break and they move to Los Angeles, a change that is supposed to be temporary. But Charlie’s interests are rooted in New York and he finds himself commuting. Henry is enrolled in school in Los Angeles. Differences become irreconcilable and there is a decision to divorce. The intention is to work everything out amicably. Good luck.
Charlie gets a low-key, homespun lawyer, nicely played by Alan Alda, who recommends settling and avoiding a costly court battle. But Nicole hires Nora Fanshaw, flamboyantly played by the excellent Laura Dern, a hot-shot killer lawyer with smarts and one who goes for the jugular. This compels Charlie to engage Jay, a take-no-prisoners lawyer sharply portrayed by Ray Liotta.
All legal hell breaks loose, with Nora wanting the case tried in Los Angeles, where Nicole would have the advantage and Jay wanting it tried in New York. In addition to financial issues escalating, Nicole wants custody of Henry. When Nicole and Charlie meet to try to settle things between them, invective pours out at each other in a very ugly scene.
The mechanics of the legal fight are intriguing as they provide insights into how divorces play out in court, and what effect they have on the participants. Nora sees her role as fighting for the rights of women as part of the battle.
Although there could be some tightening—the film runs 136 minutes -- Baumbach has achieved a major accomplishment in creating an intelligent, entertaining film that is sometimes funny, but also disturbing, with much to reveal about relationships, how they collapse and the bitterness that can erupt. A Netflix release. Reviewed October 19, 2019.