Relationships are never long for this world in Noah Baumbach movies. As a child of divorce, he has depicted the pain of separation in several films, most excruciatingly in “The Squid and the Whale.” But following his own divorce, he’s softened up a little, to the point that he’s now able to make a film drawing from his own relationship rather than his parents’. The resulting film, “Marriage Story,” doesn’t sting like “Squid” or “Margot at the Wedding,” mostly because it’s too sad to try for that kind of bite.
The likely Baumbach surrogate in the film is Charlie (Adam Driver), a New York theater director nearing the end of his marriage to actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). What they start as an amicable separation quickly spirals into something vicious when Nicole wants to move their son to L.A. That’s when lawyers get involved; Laura Dern on Nicole’s side with Alan Alda and Ray Liotta on Charlie’s. Things get even worse from there.
The first major difference one can spot between “Squid” and “Marriage” is the cinematography. “Squid” was shot in frantic handheld but this prefers the still image, either intimate close-ups or desolate wide shots, both of which often isolate Nicole and Charlie from each other on-screen. The cinematographer is Robbie Ryan, who shot “The Favourite” last year and treats this film’s locations like that film’s castle; vast, empty places where tiny people can be their worst selves.
Even more drastically different is the editing. From “Squid” on, Baumbach has favored a quick-cutting, almost montage-esque style, tailoring cuts to deliver as much comedy as possible. Here, the editing favors uninterrupted takes and soft fades, an ironically relaxed style for a film this stressful. It’s only select times when the quick cutting returns, like a ghost of Baumbach past reminding the viewer of the good times that once were.
It’s not all sad, though. Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever offer consistent laughs at Nicole’s family reluctantly getting dragged into the whole ordeal, as does Wallace Shawn as a theater actor with an endless supply of celebrity stories. But this is the first Baumbach that’s not predominantly a comedy, not even the cringe comedy of “Squid” or “Margot.” There are comedic breathers in what is otherwise a tragedy.
There’s been some debate about whether Baumbach favors Charlie or Nicole in how he makes the film. But the question of Baumbach taking sides seems irrelevant watching the film itself, which is all about divorce bringing out the worst in everybody. The movie spends more time with Charlie, but that just means it spends more time exposing his many shortcomings, from an affair to a self-absorbed attitude too hard to crack. If this is really a Baumbach self-portrait, it’s not a flattering one.
Driver is maybe modern cinema’s most charismatic actor, so he encourages you to like Charlie from his first moment on-screen, but he uses that charisma in support of an increasingly toxic brand of passive-aggression. There are times in “Marriage Story” when he’s scarier than Kylo Ren could ever dream of being, not just when he’s yelling but when he’s refusing to accept Nicole’s positions without giving them a second thought.
Nicole really doesn’t seem so bad in comparison, and Johansson makes her achingly human. Already this year, she was one of the best parts of the otherwise misbegotten “Jojo Rabbit,” but she delivers next-level work here as a sentient open wound, radiating hurt at every moment. Her and Dern make an ace odd-couple pairing, Dern playing unshakeable confidence while Johansson looks like she wants to melt into her surroundings.
If the movie has a conscience, it’s Alda as the kindly, slightly feeble lawyer who’s far too nice for this business. He’s of course quickly tossed aside for Liotta, who plays the pitbull lawyer with aplomb, playing each line so severe that Driver’s easy-going charm stands out even more. His venom directed at Nicole’s character hurts the viewer to listen to just like it does for Nicole.
And yet all this pain is scored by Randy Newman, doing the kind of sentimental orchestral score that he usually trots out for Pixar movies. It’s an odd fit, especially for a director whose music tastes usually skew more LCD Soundsystem than “Toy Story.” And yet it works in some sad way, scoring the romance that we never see while the bitterness we do see plays out in front of it.
“Marriage Story” is not a petty or mean-spirited movie like some of Baumbach’s previous work could claim to be. It’s instead something truly melancholy, viewing the wreckage of a relationship not with anger but with a lot of regret and wistfulness. The young Baumbach raged, but the middle-aged Baumbach can only sigh.