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Critic After Dark

Marriage Story
Directed by Noah Baumbach

NOAH BAUMBACH’s Marriage Story starts positively poised: Charlie (Adam Driver) and then Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) reading offscreen what they like about each other while Baumbach runs a series of images as illustrative commentary. Then the kicker — this is the start of a mediator session where the two are in the process of divorce, and Nicole refuses to read to Charles what she’s so movingly and eloquently written. The ending of the relationship, not its affirmation.

It’s a painful process, apparently biographical (Baumbach based details on his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh) and not altogether grim — the scene where a court-appointed evaluator visits Charlie having dinner with his son Henry (Azhy Robertson) is a study in slow-fuse disaster; Wallace Shawn is a welcome presence as the endlessly anecdotal Frank (apparently he won a Tony at 27 and met Elia Kazan, Mike Nichols, Marlene Dietrich — Shawn may be consciousness-streaming biographical details here); Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s mother Sandra is hilariously subversive (for one thing she likes Charlie more than she’s supposed to).

The comedy is sharpish, the drama not a little self-indulgent. Nicole has a monologue early in the film where she explains why she fell in love then eventually left her husband that Baumbach shoots first in a series of brief shots then (when the details are being agonizingly dragged out) in long take. It’s an intricately written scene and you have to give Johansson props for pulling it off; the moment provides one with an image memory of what Nicole is all about, because eventually the film shades into an extended point-of-view narrative focused on Charlie — what Baumbach, I suppose, intended all along. Women leaving their husbands is at least as old as Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and movies have dealt with troubled marriages as far back as Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (which this film alludes to once or twice) and before that Dreyer’s Master of the House — drama, after all, finds more fertile ground amongst unhappy people. Most folks thinking of divorce told from the man’s point of view cite Kramer vs. Kramer (after all it won that precious gold-plated doorstop) but filmmakers (mostly male) have been telling the story at least as far back as Truffaut’s Love on the Run.

So — this is Charlie’s story more than Nicole’s. Charlie is the director after all, Nicole a mere actress; Charlie has a vision, Nicole just wants a version of herself she can recognize apart from her husband; Charlie is a self-made New Yorker, Nicole left a privileged life in LA (to which she eventually returns). At a certain point you want to ask: wouldn’t it be interesting — perhaps more challenging — if Baumbach had tried to tell Nicole’s story instead?

Not impossible — Bergman was reportedly a womanizer and difficult husband (to put it mildly) but you would never guess that from the films — there the women are realized with preternatural sensitivity, so much so you wonder: maybe Bergman being such a bastard is part and parcel of his penetrating insight into the opposite sex? Or is he possessed of powers of empathy independent of his conscience and conduct in real life — maybe beyond his powers to apply to his own life?

I don’t know; I can only ask. One thing Baumbach does bring to the party is a more nuanced view of divorce lawyers — not the men, though Alan Alda’s legal mensch Bert Spitz and Ray Liotta’s courtroom attack dog Jay Marotta are vividly sketched cartoons. Laura Dern’s Nora, however, is, I submit, a more interesting creation: a charmer with mind like steel trap, with a distinct and comically feminist point of view (at one point she delivers a diatribe that ends with a sideswipe at the Virgin Mary) that you can’t quite make up your mind functions as either villainess or heroine. She champions Nicole, sometimes above and beyond what Nicole wants; she, like Alda’s Spitz, has a human side to her, which she reveals and hides whenever necessary.

Lemme just put the film aside and say that while the cast as a whole delivers, Dern in recent years has been knocking one after another out of the park; aside from this ambiguously shaded legal shark, she burned a brief vivid hole on the big screen in The Last Jedi. Arguably her best work however has been with David Lynch — in a starmaking role in the little-seen Inland Empire, making a spectacular entrance as the long-absent Diane in Twin Peaks: The Return. The woman is funny and fearless both in her career and artistic choices, an intimidating combination.

I’ve heard Kramer vs. Kramer cited in connection with this picture, for obvious reasons; I’ve also heard Annie Hall mentioned, for the East Coast West Coast rivalry (West comes off ostensibly better, though East retains a cultural self-righteousness that — in my book anyway — is at least partly earned). No one seems to remember Shoot the Moon, Alan Parker and Bo Goldman’s story of how divorce affects a family. Alan Parker isn’t known for restraint — and if you’ve seen Midnight Express, The Wall, and Mississippi Burning you know what I mean — but he’s miraculously low key here, his admittedly distinctive filmmaking talent working away in the background to lend the understated drama a pleasing visual hum. Goldman’s script was based on experiences with dysfunctional couples, and it’s perfectly balanced between coolly ironic distance and devastating intimacy. And while Johansson acquits herself well and Adam Driver is his usual excellent self, no, they are not Diane Keaton and Albert Finney. Maybe the only thing missing here that Baumbach nailed are the divorce lawyers — I’ll give him that much credit.