The tale of a married couple going through a bitter divorce, "Marriage Story" is as emotionally wrenching and devastatingly sad as you'd assume from the subject matter, but in the hands of smartly acerbic writer-director Noah Baumbach it's also full of life and humanity, and probably a lot funnier than you'd expect.
The couple in the process of breaking up are Charlie (played by Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). He's the director of an avant-garde theater company in New York City; she's an actress, and the star of most of his productions.
The film begins with twin montages of happier times, as we hear Nicole and Charlie each name everything that they love about one another and the life they've built together. Those lists turn out to be a mediation exercise, a suggestion from their counselor to help keep things amicable during their separation. It also provides us an immediate emotional investment in their relationship. So we care when the couple descends into a bi-coastal custody battle after Nicole decides to relocate with their 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson) back to Los Angeles where her family is, and to pursue the Hollywood career she abandoned early in their relationship.
Like all of Baumbach's movies, "Marriage Story" revolves around a certain brand of privileged, cultured urbanite. The filmmaker writes what he knows, but that doesn't prevent him from prying open his characters' faults with as much incisive intent as he does their strengths. The often bewildering legal mechanics of divorce becomes a source of humor and frustration as Charlie flails through the process, while Nicole is guided by the advice of her cheerfully ruthless divorce lawyer, played beautifully by Laura Dern.
Baumbach's script never attempts to be a grand statement about the institution of marriage, and it works so well largely because of its incredible specificity. This isn't a story about all marriages, just this one. He's even-handed in his approach, basically splitting the film in half as the film devotes its first to Nicole and its second to Charlie.
Given a pair of rich, complicated characters to play, Johansson and Driver deliver wonderfully lived-in performances. The filmmaker's strong but unflashy direction allows their towering performances to take center stage.
At the center of the film is the idea that it takes the tearing apart of a loving relationship for its players to become conscious of how that relationship worked (or didn't) in the first place. We're left with a clear understanding of why Charlie and Nicole feel their marriage needs to end, but we grieve because we see what they're losing as well. This may be a story about divorce, but it's always apparent that it's a love story as well.