At first blush, Marriage Story isn't a film that should work: do we really need another talky melodrama about an upper middle class couple getting divorced and fighting over their child? Starring famous actors? And made for Netflix? Yet the finished project is immensely watchable and even enjoyable, thanks to its blunt take on the divorce industry, writer-director Baumbach's witty script, and a truly beautiful performance by Adam Driver.
Driver plays a New York avant-garde theater director; Scarlett Johansson plays his leading lady and soon-to-be ex-wife. Again, a movie about the relationship between a director and an actress seems insular to the point of tedium, even if you can't help wondering how much of Baumbach's own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh informs the proceedings. In any event, shortly after the film acknowledges their separation, Johansson's character Nicole scores the lead role in a TV series, and while Driver's character Charlie focuses on his Broadway debut, Nicole, who has brought their eight-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her to Los Angeles, decides to hire a high-priced divorce attorney (Laura Dern), much to the surprise of Charlie, as the couple had sworn not to involve lawyers.
What happens next is almost painful to watch, as Charlie and Nicole get swept up in the awful truths of divorce court, where the only people who come out ahead are the attorneys. (Alan Alda and Ray Liotta play Charlie's various choices for representation.) Yet Marriage Story walks a tightrope over these legalities, never letting itself get too depressing or devolving into a courtroom drama. The characters state, more than once, that although each supposedly desires what is best for Henry, they're both blowing his college education savings on their exorbitantly expensive lawyers. But they are resigned to it: the situation is awful and everybody involved is making it worse, but let's just go through with it so we can move on with our lives. Watching two charismatic, talented artists become pawns in a custody battle, their humanity practically stripped away, you get a real sense of how divorce can affect anyone, rich or poor. It doesn't paint a pretty picture, yet this is the reality that millions of people go through every day.
The cast is wall-to-wall excellent, and while the ever-dependable Johansson sells us on her own character's struggles, the film belongs to Driver in all senses: as the de facto protagonist, his is a flawed and fully lived-in character. I've never seen him turn in a false performance, even in a Star Wars movie – he's like a modern-day Henry Fonda, incapable of dishonest acting – but here he truly shines. In a year of impressive but showy turns from the likes of Joaquin Phoenix and Leonardo DiCaprio, Driver reminds us that the greatest performances are often the most subtle ones.
I must make one last comment about the film's cinematography, by Irish DP Robbie Ryan. Considering that Marriage Story was made for Netflix (after a cursory theatrical run on a handful of screens), and that much of the film takes place in Charlie's simple, under-decorated bachelor pad, its look is surprisingly cinematic. Hundreds of no-budget indies have been shot in similar apartments, and they look as flat and as cheap as you can imagine. That Marriage Story looks as elegant as it does is a testament to what a great DP can bring to a film.