We all know the rituals of weddings, but divorce has its rituals too. The recriminations, the division of property, the struggle to adjust to solitary life, the escalation of petty disagreements and, in many cases, the careful manipulation that turns routine parenting into strategic exercises of emotional warfare. These events form the structure of Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, an elegant but overly mannered drama inspired in part — no surprise here — by the end of the director's own marriage.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play Charlie and Nicole Barber; he's an acclaimed director of a small New York theatre company, she was a rising teen star who left Hollywood to become his muse. After ten years or so of what appears to be a relatively happy life in Brooklyn with their son Henry (Azhy Robertson), the troubles in their marriage come to the surface. Nicole lands a job on a television series and relocates to Los Angeles with Henry. Charlie finds himself facing the unpleasant prospects of talking to divorce lawyers (Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, both excellent) and making frequent trips to the West Coast, each experience muffling him in a cloud of incredulity.
Marriage Story covers these painful conflicts through a series of almost random vignettes, often revealing significant plot points as an afterthought and letting much of drama occur between scenes. (This is the kind of movie where someone can mention off-the-cuff that he just happened to win a MacArthur Fellowship a few days earlier.) It's cleverly written, artfully directed and it offers powerful performances from Johansson and Driver, but it seems false and self-serving. It's a discrete retelling of a divorce story, with outsized caricatures and a self-consciousness that seems designed to ward off any real emotional involvement. When Baumbach has Driver apologize for being "self-pitying and boring," it seems like he's trying to ward off criticism by applying it to himself first.
Though there are efforts at maintaining a balance between the couple (often cutting between simultaneous profiles of each, as if symbolically reuniting them), the film not too subtly takes Charlie's side in more of the proceedings as he struggles to stay in his son's life. Scene after scene registers the soft-spoken New Yorker's discomfort in a world of eccentric women (Nicole moves in with her mother, played with an undefined but unmistakable pool of neuroses by Julie Hagerty) and smiling cut-throat attorneys (Alda is ineffective but avuncular, and Liotta is exactly the kind of lawyer GoodFellas' Henry Hill might have become, while Nicole's attorney is played by Laura Dern as a bigger-than-life, flamboyant backstabber.)
At times, Marriage Story seems like little more than a string of showy set pieces held together through the appeal of the stars and by Randy Newman's rich musical score. Some of them work well, like Driver's passionate if somewhat contrived performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Being Alive" (from Company), some are near misses, as when Laura Dern delivers a flashy monologue linking parental rights to the Biblical images of God and Mary. Others fall flat, as when Charlie and son are visited by a court-appointed evaluator, an awkward scene made even more so by a performance so embarrassingly misdirected that I thought the director must have asked a non-acting acquaintance to take the role. Only late in the film does the passion and frustration of the couple explode. It's a long but somewhat theatrical scene: Johansson becomes furious, Driver punches a wall and falls to the floor sobbing, but it's more emotion than Baumbach's up-to-that-moment excessively cool approach to the characters can handle. It feels like watching two actors do an early read-through of a play.
The biggest problem with Marriage Story is simply that it doesn't live up to its title. The film begins as the marriage is ending; A lengthy expository sequence introducing Charlie and Nicole is supposed to give the characters the emotional depth that Baumbach never takes time to provide in the subsequent two hours. It's less a story than it is a string of familiar situations for Driver and Johansson to react to. There's no doubt that the director feels strongly about his subject, but his restrained emotions fail to add up to a coherent drama.