The brilliant dimension of Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” is its ability to explore the humanity of a married couple, even when they themselves have forgotten about their union, or actively try to destroy it.
Following the divorce of Nicole and Charlie Barber (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver), the story is a dramedy that relentlessly depicts the very human pain of love.
This relentlessness comes naturally through the tight narrative frame, as it follows the couple from the late stages of separation through the actual divorce. That’s a very limited window, and the film packs in all the emotional punches it can muster.
The film depicts the active degradation the messy process of divorce does to a couple. Conflict is messy, but it’s personal and geared toward growth. The film argues that divorce isn’t about conflict—it’s war stripped of all humanity.
Divorce lawyers alien to the marriage fight the couple’s battles for them and keep them from communicating with each other. The couple must passively watch as the lawyers twist facts and inconsequential incidents within the marriage into blown-up arguments for “winning” the divorce. “Anything to fit the narrative,” as they say.
The problem is that the narrative is determined by people who will never have lived in their marriage. All marriages can seem problematic and dysfunctional when reduced to checkboxes and statistics.
This routine is depicted in a scene which involves an inspection of the family’s house and dynamics. When an inspector removed from the case gets involved, suddenly every single subtle quirk and nuance of the family turns into a red flag. It’s mostly played for comedy, but there’s an undercurrent of invasiveness that’s deeply unsettling.
What’s somewhat hilariously depressing, perhaps due to Driver’s delivery, was the number of times Charlie had to say “we live in New York” throughout the film. To see a decade of their married life living in New York negated from any official accounts of their marriage due to legal reasons is indicative of the complete disinterest the system has in them as people.
The film prompts this visceral reaction from a shot of a slim case file simply labeled “Marriage of Barbers.”
This is all contrasted with the scenes, few and far between, where the couple can truly communicate and talk about the root of their marriage problems. These scenes are pure tension and conflict (Johansson and Driver nail every single dramatic and comedic beat), but they’re less painful to watch than the courtroom war scenes between the lawyers fighting on their behalf (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, equally electric on screen).
The “war” does have its victims and it’s primarily evident in Nicole and Charlie’s young son Henry (Azhy Robertson). The couple goes to great financial and psychological lengths to continue fighting through the divorce, and they claim it’s ultimately for Henry’s good. However, Henry is constantly side-lined throughout the film, his needs and desires being projected onto him by his parents.
The film balances all these elements and never forgets these characters are human beings. The comedic bits have a sense of untouched sadness hanging over them, and the heartbreaking moments always have a sense of levity in them.
This duality is highlighted in the love letter that bookends the film. It makes the film begin and end on the same note of painful human love, with everything else in between being just conflict and reduction. The couple tear each other apart but ultimately are the only ones who can rightfully love each other, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so.