Most of Noah Baumbach’s latest film takes place amid awkward tension and polite unease. Charlie (Adam Driver), a theatre director, and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actor, are hacking their way through a particularly bloody divorce. He has remained in Brooklyn. She has moved to Los Angeles. Deep breaths are taken before every negotiation involving their son Henry (Azhy Robertson).
Towards the close, as lawyers fuel rifts, the pointed courtesy breaks down and they yell wild, filthy accusations at one another. There is a sense of catharsis. There is a frankness to the emotions. But they don’t really believe what they’re saying.
If the film has a lesson – and it almost certainly doesn’t – it is that truth rests as comfortably in civility as it does in naked conflict. Being furious doesn’t make you right.
Baumbach has been on an interesting journey: 15 years ago, The Squid and the Whale, another film about a decaying bohemian relationship, struck an unlikely balance between affection and disdain. Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg erred towards misanthropy. Later, working with current partner Greta Gerwig, he hit sweet comic form with Frances Ha and Mistress America.
Maybe he should stop after Marriage Story. For good reasons. As funny as it is heart-wrenching, the film plays like a perfectly balanced blend of his characteristic flavours. Some will complain that it again takes place among a certain class of New York snoot (the finale involves not one, but two, songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Company) but one may as well whinge about the dramatis personae in Ibsen or Bergman or Proust. Baumbach knows this world and he is happy to tease apart its delusions.
Some have pointed towards Kramer vs Kramer as a precursor, but, in its savagery about the legal process, Marriage Story is perhaps closer to Danny DeVito’s undervalued War of the Roses. The couple fall out in relatively ordered fashion and only become vicious enemies when the lawyers unsheathe weapons. Indeed, the film starts with two enormously touching monologues, written as exercises for a guidance counsellor, that allow each to celebrate the other’s virtues. None of the subsequent bile feels as sincere. For a film decorated with so many sharp edges, Marriage Story has a surprisingly soft heart.
The early, informal entente breaks down when Nicole drifts towards inventively aggressive attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern, brilliant, funny), who urges her to weaponise all differences, and Charlie takes up with the polite, emollient Bert Spitz (Alan Alda, heartbreakingly charming).
Here we reach contention. In its journey around the festivals, many enthusiasts have argued that the film shares its sympathies equally between the two combatants. This seems generous. It is Nicole who turns first to the legal jackal. It is her team who make the disingenuous argument that, despite living almost all their married life in Brooklyn, they are not really a “New York family”. Charlie ends up with the messier end of the stick throughout. He sings the sad song from Company. She sings the jolly Sondheim number.
Perhaps this is an unavoidable consequence of the director's perspective. Clearly drawing experiences from his own breakup with Jennifer Jason Leigh, he understandably spends more time with the husband than the wife. At any rate, Johansson, who has never been better, works hard at getting across Nicole's conflicted emotions. Driver is equally good at conveying the pressures of being forced unwillingly into an antagonistic mindset. It's as if both characters are acting as proxies for unkind warring Gods.
Returning after less assertive work on Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories, Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, finds yards of distance within the tiniest space: caverns across a subway carriage, yawning pits in a suburban kitchen. As the story progresses, night closes in around Charlie and windows open for Nicole.
Yet the end result is far from miserable. Enlivened by hilarious supporting performances from Julie Hagerty and Merritt Weaver, Marriage Story finds humour in the worst scenarios and hope in the most uncivil dissolutions. It's a wonder. It is Baumbach's best film.
Opens on November 15th