Noah Baumbach doesn’t like risk. Even when his films are impressive — and they often are — their formal parameters remain fairly limited. His collaborations with Greta Gerwig pushed further — but it’s his latest, Marriage Story, that might eventually come to feel like a transitional work within his filmography. Twinned montages introduce the film’s central couple: Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) — the former an experimental theater director and New York native, and the latter a Los Angeles-born actress who wants to flirt with film and television work after some years on the stage. The narration lists all their respective best attributes; knowledge of their impending divorce follows immediately after. Immediately, then, Baumbach sets up the formal template of the film, which introduces exaggerated, even caricatured types, then offers sundry details to modulate or even overturn the typification — which is also to say the opposite of what goes on during divorce proceedings, where small slippages are turned into deadly character flaws.
The early scene where Nicole meets with a high-powered divorce lawyer (a superb Laura Dern, channelling Renata Klein from Big Little Lies) puts this model into practice, with Johansson’s mannered, tic-heavy performance placed alongside a bracing monologue about Nicole’s history with Charlie, accompanied by a slow zoom into close-up that gradually pares away the former. Still, even when Baumbach stretches himself, it feels as if he’s holding back. Driver’s late-breaking Sondheim performance is one of the Marriage Story’s bona fide highlights — yet even here, Baumbach merely has the camera follow Charlie, feint at breaking off the performance, then push in to a close-up. More daring is a rapidly escalating spat between the couple, which starts out in the usual quip-heavy Baumbach mode before heading into vicious barb-trading that registers not unlike an experimental theater exercise. It’s the rare moment where Baumbach risks actual failure — and that, in itself, might be reckoned as a kind of success.
Published as part of November 2019’s Before We Vanish.