Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story (Photo: Netflix)

★★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Noah Baumbach
STARS Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson

(For a look at The 10 Best & 10 Worst Films of 2019, go here.)

Marriage Story opens with voice-overs from its two central characters. Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is describing his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in the most loving manner possible, detailing how she truly listens to other people, how she’s a wonderful mother to their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), and even how her “strong arms” allow her to open pickle jars that defeat his feeble appendages at every turn. Nicole responds in kind, noting how Charlie makes everybody around him feel welcome, how he’s a wonderful father to Henry, and even how he can “darn socks” and ably perform other homebody chores.

These monologues instantly allow us to not only come to know Nicole and Charlie but also to fall a bit in love with them. But then comes the kicker. These declarations are from letters penned at the request of their marriage counselor — documents (or “writes of passage,” as it were) meant as a last gasp before the two plunge inexorably into divorce.

Marriage Story is a magnificent movie, the best of its kind since Ingmar Bergman shot his Scenes from a Marriage back in 1974. Writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young) has topped himself with a film that’s alternately humorous, hopeful and heartbreaking, and in the process he has drawn career-best performances out of both Johansson and Driver.

Nicole, a former film actress best known for a teen sex comedy in which she “showed her tits,” gave up her Hollywood career after she met stage director Charlie and opted to not only marry him but also to star in his avant-garde plays in New York. But at this point in her life, Nicole is feeling invisible and unfulfilled, so she decides to head back to Los Angeles an attempt to jump-start her film career by starring in a TV pilot.

Laura Dern in Marriage Story (Photo: Netflix)

Both parties agree to proceed with a divorce on amicable terms, with no lawyers involved. But after Nicole changes her mind and procures the services of hot-shot L.A. attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), Adam has no choice but to also nab his own. Since his lawyer must also be L.A.-based, he finds himself offered two choices in the take-no-prisoners Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), who charges $950 an hour (“[My assistant] costs $400 an hour. If you have any stupid questions, call him.”) and the slightly cheaper and more affable Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), whose tendency to continuously share anecdotes leads Charlie to quip, “Am I paying for this joke?”

Marriage Story is rich in both incident and emotion, as Nicole deals with family loyalty — her mother (Julie Hagerty) is fond of Charlie and wants to remain friends with him — while Charlie is forced to regularly fly to the West Coast even as he struggles to mount his latest production on the East Coast (the NYC-LA tug-of-war brings to mind the hilarious turf battle showcased in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall). The laughs flow a bit more easily during the film’s first half — once the matter of child custody springs to the forefront, they become more subversive and more cynical. Similarly, the splintered relationship between Charlie and Nicole intensifies during the second hour, resulting in a powerhouse sequence as raw and as real as any seen in a 2019 release.

Unlike 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer, which primarily focused on the Dustin Hoffman character while only occasionally allowing the Meryl Streep character her say, Marriage Story remains committed to both of its players. While Charlie undergoes the most difficulties over the course of the film, that’s not to say that Baumbach (who was partly inspired to make the movie following his own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh) throws his sympathies entirely behind his fellow dude-bro — that would be out of character for a filmmaker who previously gave us the likes of Margot at the Wedding and Frances Ha.

On the contrary, it’s clear that Charlie is more in the wrong than Nicole, and this allows for some compelling back-and-forths between the estranged lovers. It also reveals that Baumbach deserves to move to the forefront of American directors, as he has produced a film that’s more honest, empathic and absorbing than any made this year by his more heavily hyped comrades.

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