'Marriage Story' Review: Adam Driver And Scarlett Johansson Dazzle In Noah Baumbach's Heartfelt Drama [TIFF 2019]

It begins with kindness. Through a series of charming montages, we watch – and listen – as married couple Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) list off the things they love about each other – the types of quirks, in-jokes, and eccentricities that two people who have lived together for some time grow so familiar with over time. The type of personality traits that might seem baffling or even annoying to outsiders, but can be utterly lovely when they're performed by someone you've given your heart and soul to. It's a sweet, romantic start – and it's something of a huge fake-out. Because despite their laundry list of compliments for one another, Charlie and Nicole's marriage is over, and we're about to watch things get ugly.

Marriage Story, the latest from Noah Baumbach, is the very definition of a character study. Or characters study is more precise, as Baumbach guides us through Charlie and Nicole's divorce from each of their point of views. There's the semblance of a story trajectory here as Charlie and Nicole learn to navigate their new, separate lives while also dealing with how to share custody of their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). But what Marriage Story is most interested in is simply hanging back and observing these two people as they each try to make sense of what the hell is happening to what they both previously thought was a secure relationship.

Nicole is an actress, made famous from starring in a raunchy teen comedy. After her time in L.A., she moved to New York and became immediately smitten with Charlie, a playwright forming his own theatre company. Nicole joined the company, and she and Charlie began a relationship which spawned both Henry and a new, acclaimed career for Nicole.

But Nicole's heart belongs more to the screen than the stage, and she's spent years yearning to return to Los Angeles to get back into movies – a move that Charlie has no interest in what-so-ever. Baumbach cleverly sidesteps showing us how Charlie and Nicole's marriage ended and instead jumps right into their separation. It's a separation Charlie clearly doesn't fully grasp – Nicole has moved back to L.A. to star in a TV pilot, and even though it should be obvious they're getting a divorce, Charlie keeps assuming Nicole will simply move back in with him in New York once the filming of the TV series has ended.

Nicole has no intention of going back to the Big Apple – which puts Henry in the middle of the large gulf that separates his parents. There's an initial sense that the split will be amicable – the couple both say they don't want to use lawyers. But that's a stance that Nicole doesn't stick to, and she's soon hired a high-priced lawyer, played perfectly by Laura Dern, who brings both fiery indignation and affable charm to the role.

Since Nicole has lawyered up, that means Charlie needs to as well. First he turns to an expensive shark played by Ray Liotta, and then to a much kinder, gentler soul played by Alan Alda. But lawyers are expensive, as is the constant back and forth between New York and L.A., and all that time and money starts to add up. Like a tea kettle left on the burner for far too long, the emotions between Charlie and Nicole begin to simmer, boil and then shriek with pressure the more complicated the divorce grows.

The constantly fluctuating emotional states of the characters require Baumbach to balance a tricky level of both heartwrenching drama and laugh-out-loud comedy, causing Marrige Story to be both funny and bleak. This is a sort of horror movie for couples – an illustration of how quickly your once-normal relationship can explode before your eyes.

Baumbach's direction is intimate and subtle. He lets the camera hang back in the scenes Charlie and Nicole share together, illustrating the literal empty space that now separates them. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan's 35mm photography renders it all in a beautifully refined manner. This is not a visually flashy movie. Instead, it lets the performances create the fireworks.

As a result, the fate of the film rests fully in Driver and Johansson's hands, and both actors are more than up for the challenge, turning in career-best work. The narrative seems skewed more towards Charlie than it does Nicole – not in the sense that it's taking his side in the split, but that it's more focused on how the divorce is changing him. The script is prescient enough to make sure we understand how flawed and self-centered Charlie is, but Driver is such a gifted performer that he manages to make the character sympathetic. That's not to say we're rooting for Charlie to "win" against Nicole – there are no winners here, just two people navigating an emotional minefield. Driver, his tall, lanky frame suggesting an inherently awkward individual, plays Charlie as someone utterly clueless as to why his marriage is over. His emotions present themselves as befuddlement at first but soon explode in a moment of raw, scary rage. Watching Driver work here is more thrilling than any special-effects driven action set piece that Hollywood can produce.

Johansson's role is much different. Her character is the one initiating the split, and since the focus of the film tilts towards Charlie, there was a real fear that Baumbach could've ended up portraying Nicole as something of a shrew – the angry, bitter woman a male audience might resent. But Baumbach's script is smarter than that, and it's clear that he's much more sympathetic towards Nicole here. This all requires Johansson to portray Nicole as someone infuriated, but rightfully so. She's angry, and she deserves to be. She's also heartbroken, and while Driver's Charlie gets to blow up emotionally more than once, Nicole is more reserved in her pain.

This all might make it sound as if Marriage Story is a slog through one emotionally draining scene after another. But even though the proceedings are often quite heartbreaking, Baumbach also knows how to milk comedy from the situation. It's the type of clumsy, awkward, almost surreal situational comedy that often accompanies tragedy – we can't help but laugh – because if we didn't laugh, we'd cry. Life is harsh, yes. But sometimes, it's funny, too.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10