Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” pulls us inside the cyclone of a disintegrating marriage, letting us see the shrapnel flying and the devastated landscape left behind. New York theater couple Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress, and Charlie (Adam Driver), a director, have been together about a decade, and have an 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). We meet the couple, in an opening scene in a therapist’s office, as they are listing things they love about each other. Nicole, Charlie says, gives great presents. Charlie, Nicole says, is “brilliant at creating family from whoever’s around.”
It’s a quiet beginning for a movie that quickly gets much harsher, but the affection expressed in those lists keeps popping up, in unexpected places: an endearment that slips out — “honey” — in the middle of a fight, like something left behind on the floor in an otherwise cleared-out room. “Marriage Story” takes us through a vast range of emotions, from wall-punching, voices-raised anger to quiet reflection, as two people try to understand why they don’t love each other anymore.
And, like a new-generation “Kramer vs. Kramer,” they battle for custody of Henry; complicated by the fact that Nicole has moved back to her native Los Angeles to be near her family, while Charlie has stayed in New York for his work. Each retains a lawyer: Nicole hires Nora (Laura Dern, wonderful as always), a sleekly smiling divorce attorney who clearly enjoys the process of extracting all she can get; Charlie first employs Bert (Alan Alda), a kindly old-school fellow who counsels “remember, the win is what’s best for Henry,” but switches to the more barracuda-like Jay (Ray Liotta).
With up-close cinematography and long, patient scenes in which characters pour out their hearts, “Marriage Story” feels startlingly intimate; we’re right there in this marriage, witnessing its dying embers. Baumbach makes it tough for us to take sides; both Nicole and Charlie are flawed characters who make missteps — they’re competitive, and they both want to win — but they adore their son and want to do right by him. “I want to stay friends,” says Nicole hesitantly, and she means it, but friendship on a battlefield is hard to sustain.
It’s a movie full of moments and details that resonate: an exquisitely awkward Halloween-night sequence, as Charlie desperately tries to show Henry some fun on a lonely second round of trick-or-treating; the quiet of the relentlessly beige apartment Charlie rents in Los Angeles, in the hopes of getting custody; the warmth of Nicole’s extended family, representing another loss for Charlie; the hurt that hangs in the air between these two, like a fog that won’t lift. Johansson and Driver are remarkably, heartbreakingly good in every scene; showing their characters’ journeys to an unflinching camera, letting the gap between them get wider yet unable, for their son’s sake, to completely walk away. It’s a drama playing out on two larger-than-life faces; a family torn apart, and yet enduring.
★★★★ “Marriage Story,” with Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Azhy Robertson. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. 137 minutes. Rated R for language throughout and sexual references. Opens Nov. 27 at Crest Cinema Center; begins streaming on Netflix Dec. 6.