If they called it “Divorce Story,” you wouldn’t go see it. And you really should.
Not only is “Marriage Story” possibly the magnum opus Noah Baumbach has been working toward for much of his career; not only does it give space to two or three or five of our finest working actors to re-enact the human condition as a daily tragicomedy; not only is it a “Kramer vs. Kramer” that refuses to take sides. It’s because movies like this — that with sorrow and solidarity offer witness to the muddles we make — can help us feel more connected, rather than less, to the slipstream outside the theater and to everyone inside it, too. (A Netflix production, the movie starts streaming Dec. 6.)
Adam Driver plays Charlie, a successful downtown stage director. Scarlett Johansson is Nicole, who gave up a Hollywood acting career to be his Off-Broadway muse. We first meet them singing each others’ praises in what turns out to be a divorce-mediation exercise, a trick that establishes the tight emotional knot they have decided to untie.
Nicole heads west to Hollywood for a TV gig, taking with her the couple’s young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Her mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty) and sister Cassie (Merritt Wever) both live there; because it’s LA, they’re actresses, too. Charlie assumes this is all temporary, and much of the film’s drama, the rug pulled out from under his feet, is how his family is now bicoastal in ways he didn’t expect and can’t really afford.
Why are the two busting up? Nicole finds herself invisible in her own life. Charlie had a stupid fling. These things happen. They’ve vowed to split amicably, but that’s before Nicole is talked into meeting with Nora Fanshaw, a breezily take-charge LA divorce lawyer played by Laura Dern in one of the year’s most acidly funny performances. Nora toggles between being a girl’s best pal and a shark unleashed; just the way she pops her high heels off to skootch up to her new client on the sofa, urging Nicole to unload, is a small gem of character detail.
Baumbach’s wise enough to let his twin leads talk, in dueling monologues that reveal layers of intent and self-deception that most movies don’t come near. Johansson and Driver both rise to the challenge, revealing vulnerabilities that battle with pigheadedness, and if it all sounds rather boring, it’s very much not. The two are electrifyingly present in each passing moment, and they’re traversing terrain of uncertainty and insecurity, of anger and loss, that will strike chords in almost every viewer.
And, too, “Marriage Story” gets the found comedy of it all, and the way our friends and families become supporting players in our daily farces. Charlie already has a makeshift clan in his theater troupe, with such valuable members as Matthew Maher and dear old Wallace Shawn, as the company blowhard. Nicole has her sister and mother, and how wonderful it is to see the slamming-door byplay among Johansson, the dry Wever (“Nurse Jackie”), and the scattershot Hagerty (still beloved from “Airplane!”) as they dither over how to serve Charlie with divorce papers.
There’s a court-mandated caseworker visit to Charlie and Henry’s bare-bones LA condo unit that is a miniature disaster movie — pure worst-case-scenario slapstick. We meet the yin and yang of Charlie’s potential divorce lawyers, the aging mensch (Alan Alda, delightful) and the high-priced attack dog (Ray Liotta, scary). And we get a scene that works down to the nub of every discontent that can rise within a couple — how two people who see each other every day can stop seeing each other at all — and an argument that scorches the earth for everyone, onscreen and off.
Baumbach is known for working from his life. His 2005 breakthrough, “The Squid and the Whale,” remulched his own parents’ split, and his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh is doubtless the seedbed from which much of “Marriage Story” flowers. (His current relationship, with actress-director Greta Gerwig, is left untouched here.) These kinds of gazes in the mirror can be wearying, but Baumbach has reached a point in his career where he’s able to set up his tent just far enough away to see everything clearly, and he’s abetted by two actors willing to travel with him wherever the adventure leads. Johansson has rarely been this empathetic; Driver never so poignantly lost.
You may find yourself crying for them occasionally; I did. At the same time, Baumbach knows Charlie and Nicole are performers both, and he gives us two lovely, unconnected scenes toward the end in which the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim speak more directly from the characters’ hearts than they’re able to. (Driver, it turns out, has an excellent voice, and the way he dives back to the mike for the second verse of “Being Alive” might just wreck you.) Is the director borrowing another person’s artistry to bulk up his own? Perhaps. But “Marriage Story” understands we’re all of us improvising all of the time, and happy to grab onto anything that helps us make sense of the play. It’s quite a show.
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Alan Alda. At Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner (in 35mm). 136 minutes. R (language, sexual references, volcanic resentments and grown-up emotions).