Forty years after “Kramer vs. Kramer,” writer/director Noah Baumbach brings his own story of a marriage disintegrating.
It’s “Marriage Story” and, in the hands of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, it’s remarkable – a look at what went right and how it all got derailed.
Both involved in the theater (she’s an actress, he’s an acclaimed director), they’re staging an avant garde version of “Electra” that, likely, will get them acclaim but not widespread attention. Rather than stick with the show when it goes to Broadway, she decides to accept a pilot offer in Los Angeles. There, she can find what she thought she gave up and the two can consider what, exactly, their shared future is.
Quickly, career becomes a sticking point. He wins a MacArthur genius grant; the pilot goes to series and the thought of divorce becomes very real.
Baumbach, though, doesn’t hesitate to show the love that exists no matter how much discord there may be. The wedge, in fact, is often the lawyers who become involved.
Like an obsequious network executive, Laura Dern sweeps in as a highly recommended divorce attorney. She makes idle chitchat with the best of them but knows how to move in for the kill when it really matters. Alan Alda represents Driver and admits this kind of case will go in a very specific direction.
The two, however, don’t want drama. They don’t want their 8-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) to become a pawn; they don’t want the good times to be erased by signatures on a divorce decree.
Even during the tough times, the two talk, share concerns and enjoy the quiet moments. In the midst of it all, she cuts his hair, orders his lunch, tends to his needs.
He does what he needs, too, to show that he’s not an absentee father.
The little moments mean so much and Baumbach doesn’t waste a single one. While Driver is clearly one of those once-in-a-lifetime actors, Johansson is every bit his equal, making the end of this relationship seem like a bigger tragedy than anyone realized.
While it’d be easy to dwell on the more dramatic moments, Baumbach finds the comedy, particularly with Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever (as Johansson’s mother and sister) and Dern.
Dern, in fact, is such a force you realize this isn’t just another divorce film, it’s an indictment of the process. Pulling out information both wouldn’t want considered, she makes sedate legal settings into boxing rings. She hits below the belt, even when her client says no.
The sparks fly in “Marriage Story,” but it’s the softer, quieter moments that help it land. It’s one of the year’s best and a high point in each of its actors’ careers.