From the opening moments of “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach announces an evolution in his filmmaking. Scarlett Johansson wistfully enters DP’s Robby Ryan’s delicate and warm frame in an emotionally urgent closeup. From there, we are immediately thrust into a spirited montage that’s highlighted by legendary composer Randy Newman’s delightful tapdance of a score. During this evocative montage that showcases Nicole’s heartfelt duties as a mother and spouse before her subsequent decision to file for divorce, Baumbach implements handheld photography for the first time in his work since 2007’s “Margot At The Wedding,” a personal favorite but widely divisive film. Baumbach has been an underrated director for over two decades with his acidic characterizations and precise screwball editing being undervalued by the masses that granted peers such as Wes Anderson crossover success. With his newest film that garnered consistent and simultaneous laughs and cathartic tears from the robust audience, Baumbach constantly shifts gears and experiments with tone for maximum accessibility. This bouncy opening proceeds to change perspective as it focuses on Adam Driver’s character Charlie. This allows the film to instantly introduce both main characters without stigma and develop the personal intercutting that soon follows.
The jagged handheld photography settles into more refined vistas that alternate between appropriately sharp closeups and spacious compositions that find characters trapped by the spaces they have entangled themselves in. Baumbach’s trademark as a director is his humorous knack for offhand dialogue, and he takes advantage of running jokes about the difference in geography between New York and Los Angeles. This adds necessary and thematic levity to a story that would otherwise be very dramatic and flat. Frequently hysterical and wise, the in-depth screenplay favors theatrical monologues, which is an exceptional decision given the characters of Nicole and Charlie are artists who find themselves in the very pronounced and performative world of divorce. And with a seasoned ensemble such as this, how could you not provide them with juicy material? Laura Dern is a scene-stealer as Johansson’s firecracker attorney whose vivacious courtroom antics shower the audience with laughter. Alan Alda displays his great timing as he indulges in the role of a well-meaning yet ultimately incompetent previously divorced divorce attorney that Driver’s character hires before conceding to Ray Liotta’s more extroverted and volcanic lawyer-a natural rival to Dern. The script is littered with these rich observations, and while personal, Baumbach never wallows in false modesty.
At its core, the film is still a love story between two people that have fallen out of it. Empathy seeps out through every scene in large part to Baumbach’s refusal to play sides. He offers personal vulnerability to both of his leads, and Driver and Johansson take full advantage. Johansson gives a career-best performance, enveloping herself in these harrowing monologues, soulfully in touch with Nicole’s self-discovery and regaining confidence. Driver has a challenging role as the demanding husband and aloof father, but his sensitively underplayed delivery and puppy-dog demeanor is the proper way to handle the arc and earn the audience sympathy without contrivance.
The film ends in a fantastically crowd-pleasing fashion that honors the characters and their journey. “Marriage Story” is an old-fashioned charmer, the type of movie we deserve yet rarely receive, which is what makes it so special—masterfully exchanging laughter and pathos.