Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a director. Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is an actress. For years they have worked together at the same avant-garde theater company, and for years they have also been husband and wife, with a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), who is now 8. At home one night in their Brooklyn apartment, Charlie offers Nicole a note on her latest performance, a longtime habit that seems particularly superfluous since she is about to exit the show and their marriage. But he offers it anyway: “At the end, I could tell you were pushing for the emotion.”
Like almost everything else in “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach’s scalding, wrenching and inexhaustibly rich new movie, the line serves more than one purpose. It’s a power move, a chance for Charlie to take Nicole down a peg in the guise of feedback. It’s also an honest insight between creative professionals who have built their life together around their art. It’s the movie’s challenge to itself, a promise that Driver and Johansson, both in peak form, will experience none of the same strain. There will be no pushing for the emotion here.
Most of all, it offers a crucial clue as to what “Marriage Story” is about. Of course it’s about the end of a relationship, and Baumbach, a peerless observer of domestic pettiness and passive-aggressive behavior, puts every unflattering detail under his dramatic microscope. His combination of rigor and empathy has already earned any number of critical superlatives, and I’m not here to dispute any of them. “Marriage Story” is an emotionally lacerating experience, a nearly flawless elegy for a beautifully flawed couple, a broken-family classic to set beside “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Fanny and Alexander,” to name two films that Baumbach references visually here.
But it is also something else: not just one of the best-acted movies you’ll see this year but also one of the year’s best movies about acting. This should come as little surprise. From “Margot at the Wedding” to “The Meyerowitz Stories,” Baumbach has long been interested in the lives of privileged, cultured individuals with a tendency to self-dramatize. And if every marriage requires an element of pretense, then divorce may demand an all-out charade, especially if both parties are committed to the appearance of a smooth, amicable uncoupling.
Their initial script is one they have written, at a mediator’s instruction, in the form of personal letters memorializing their relationship. We hear them read those letters in voice-over, accompanied by flashbacks to happier times with Henry and set to a lovely, plaintive score by Randy Newman. There are home-cooked meals and games of Monopoly, afternoon outings and bedtime rituals. Charlie speaks affectionately of Nicole’s kindness and klutziness, and of her gifts as an actress. Nicole talks about what a good dad Charlie is, how much she admires his self-sufficiency and initiative. It’s clear that these two know each other inside out.
The actors seem to know them just as intimately. Nicole may seem the more recessive figure at first, but in Johansson’s tremulous but forceful performance, her easygoing vibe can harden suddenly into steel. Charlie is louder and brasher but also more guileless, and Driver uses his towering Franken-physique to suggest both a figure of authority and an overgrown child. The difficulties facing both actors are considerable — expository monologues shot in demanding long takes, conversations that take them across an entire spectrum of contradictory emotions — but they don’t rise to each challenge so much as absorb it. Together they turn Baumbach’s acerbic words and their own instinctive gestures into the language of a recognizably real relationship.
That relationship, rosy as it may look in retrospect, carries a history of unspoken resentments and uneven compromises. The Barbers’ separation comes at a moment of great professional opportunity for both of them: Charlie’s play, a striking modern update of Sophocles’ “Electra,” is Broadway-bound, while Nicole has landed the lead role in a TV pilot in Los Angeles, where she grew up. She and Henry relocate to L.A. for a spell that Charlie assumes will be temporary, though it becomes clear that his assumptions — plus a spot of workplace infidelity — are what motivated Nicole to begin divorce proceedings in the first place.
The acting metaphor becomes explicit when Charlie flies out to meet Nicole in L.A., and she enlists the help of her mother, Sandra (Julie Hagerty), and sister, Cassie (Merritt Wever), to greet him with divorce papers. Both Sandra and Cassie are actresses too, and the ensuing comedy of errors plays like a piece of experimental theater, or perhaps an awkward improv comedy routine. No one is more thrown off-guard than Charlie: Who changed the script without his permission? Didn’t they agree to do this without lawyers?
Maybe they did — or maybe, as suggested by Nicole’s formidable attorney, Nora (a splendid, take-no-prisoners Laura Dern), Charlie always expects everything to be on his terms. Left scrambling to find L.A. counsel even as work pressures mount in New York, Charlie must choose between Jay (Ray Liotta), a high-priced barracuda who rivals Nora in ruthlessness, and the kinder, more affordable Bert (Alan Alda, wonderful), who approaches the case with welcome warmth but little optimism. There’s no real victory in a $50-billion-per-year divorce industry that incentivizes its customers to behave as unreasonably as possible, even as it bleeds them dry emotionally and financially.
The lawyering up on both sides expands this tense domestic drama into a furiously barbed ensemble comedy in which everyone must play their part to perfection. Nora and Jay know that their job is not just to litigate but to perform, to bring some histrionics to the joint autopsy they’re conducting on the Barbers’ marriage. Charlie and Nicole are performing, too, rehearsing their testimonies and exaggerating each other’s worst qualities to elicit the most favorable outcome.
To a degree that is thrilling as well as depressing, Baumbach shows us how the bitterest divorces don’t just end a marriage but poison its very spirit. Innocuous comments are entered into evidence. Forgivable foibles are weaponized. Los Angeles and New York are dragged into the debate, twin cultural capitals that pit Nicole’s lifestyle ideal against Charlie’s. All this unfolds against a perfectly realized backdrop of chilly boardrooms, drab offices and an L.A. apartment that Charlie races to turn into a presentable home for himself and Henry. (The exquisitely unshowy cinematography and production design are by Robbie Ryan and Jade Healy, respectively.)
Speaking of Henry, a sweet, likable, ordinary kid caught up in a bitterly protracted custody battle, he becomes a prize and an inconvenience, a weight and an abstraction, something his parents end up fighting over more for their benefit than his. There’s an especially cruel irony here: Relentlessly playing the good parents — literally, when an evaluator (Martha Kelly) comes to observe Charlie with Henry — drains them of the time and energy they need to be the good parents they’ve always been.
This is hardly the first time Baumbach, now 50, has steered us through the emotional wreckage of a broken marriage, as he did 14 years ago in “The Squid and the Whale.” That picture was sharply drawn from elements of his parents’ divorce, and “Marriage Story,” though not explicitly autobiographical, has already provoked comparisons with Baumbach’s own.
You may well watch this movie hunting for clues and confessionals, or at least trying to gauge its sympathies. Do they lie with Nicole, who seems to have sacrificed and suffered more during the marriage? Or with Charlie, who has far less family support and seems far likelier to be the director’s onscreen surrogate?
Perhaps the surest sign of Baumbach’s integrity is that he refuses to provide an easy answer. His writing has rarely been more incisive, and it has almost certainly never been more generous or forgiving. Nicole’s aggressive legal strategy may strike you as too calculating by half, unless you understand it to be a long-overdue act of reclamation by a woman tired of putting her own needs and dreams aside. Driver’s performance does achieve the deeper, more lingering impact, in part because Charlie is granted the courtesy of more screen time, but that may well be because he has the most learning and growing to do.
And learn and grow he does. Toward the end of “Marriage Story,” Nicole and Charlie both sing numbers from “Company,” Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical about marriage and its discontents. These are lovely moments, richly textured snapshots of two people who have always been steeped in the arts. But when Charlie launches into his solo (“Someone to hold me too close/Someone to hurt me too deep”), you’re seeing something close to sublime: a man who has managed to embrace his pain and feel more alive, even hopeful, for it. For one shimmering moment, giving a performance and telling the truth suddenly become one, never to be put asunder.
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes
Playing: Opens Nov. 6 at Vista Theatre, Los Angeles, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles; starts streaming Dec. 6 on Netflix