In his musical Company, Sondheim offered the world a musical about the highs and lows of marriage and singledom. As the cavalcade of couples featured in “The Little Things You Do Together” sing, “It’s the little ways you try together, cry together, lie together, that make perfect relationships,” so it’s only appropriate that Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story opens by highlighting what we think a perfect relationship looks like.
As we watch Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) list the things they love about each other, including the flaws that make them the unique individuals they are, we get the feeling that this is in fact a marriage that was full of love. But all good things come to an end, and so, Marriage Story isn’t so much the story of a perfect relationship, but instead a story about two people who decide they no longer want to maneuver as one.
This isn’t the first time writer-director Baumbach has approached divorce, with the caustically funny The Squid and the Whale coming first, but rather than focus on what it’s like to watch your parents divorce, here we see what the adults themselves are struggling with. Never one to shy away from autobiographical elements throughout his career, it’s easy to draw parallels between the characters and the director and his ex-wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Marriage Story dives into all the frustrations that come with divorce in a rather unique way, bouncing between Nicole and Charlie trying to navigate what a reasonable split-up should look like and coming across every possible roadblock. It’s in trying to manage two different career trajectories while flying across the country to see your child. It’s in trying to figure out if your lawyers—Laura Dern with her pop feminist musings, Ray Liotta with his antagonistic plays, or Alan Alda casually stalling, each one as unhelpful as the last—have a genuine interest in helping you or are simply exploiting you for your time and money.
We’re made to watch, laugh, and cry, with these individuals; a little screwball comedy when serving divorce papers, a little heartache when a child expresses that he’d rather spend time with the other parent, and so on. Where some of Baumbach’s work stings like a knife slicing through skin (The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, for instance), others (Frances Ha and While We’re Young) lean into a territory that’s more wistful and optimistic than disdainful. Marriage Story, then, is a perfect balance of both these things.
Johannson and Driver stun in their respective roles, each one fleshing out roles that could have easily fallen into cloying and saccharine territory in less skilled hands. Nicole is a woman simply trying to establish a life for herself in Los Angeles, away from a world that seems entirely designed to her husband’s whims back in New York, while Charlie is a man desperate to maintain some sense of normalcy despite being torn between his home and the life that Nicole wants to lead.
And Marriage Story never judges these two characters, despite the ways they fumble a number of things in the process of getting a divorce. Baumbach offers a mostly balanced look at the two characters, never letting you forget that there are two halves to every marriage. As far apart in their lives as they might be at any given moment—one gleefully singing “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” with her family and friends while the other achingingly croons “Being Alive” at a piano lounge celebration—they remain connected by the things they love, be it something as important as the son that they each want to spend as much time with as possible, or something as seemingly frivolous as Sondheim’s Company.
Noah Baumbach knows that divorce itself is a lot like marriage. As Sondheim’s lyrics continue, “It’s things like using force together, shouting till you’re hoarse together, getting a divorce together, that make perfect relationships.” Marriage Story, from start to finish, never stops being about that perfect relationship, and watching these two individuals simultaneously grow closer and further apart during their divorce is nothing short of a wonderful experience.
Marriage Story opens at Tower Theater Miami on Friday, November 29. Purchase your tickets now at towertheatermiami.com.