The fact there are more notable comedies about war than divorce either tells you about the bleakness of the subject, or cinema's belief that death on a mass scale is more amusing than heartbreak on a minute one—or both. Noah Baumbach's films have always mined affluent darkness for humour, and in the case of Marriage Story he rightly does not shy away from either. Appropriately the film is bi-coastal. The divorce between LA-born actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and New York-claiming avant-garde theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver), takes her back to the west coast and away from his strong, MacArthur Genius Grant-possessing arms.
To a similar end of chiselling humour and humanity out of wretchedness, Baumbach's films play with the focus of scenes: the trivial reactions of side characters can steal the attention from the main performers, like a rowdy audience within a film. In a heated, protracted, thrillerish divorce court argument between the couple's lawyers (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta) the camera rack-focuses to the people waiting behind in the gallery; tired, working, out of love people who presumably have much less time to waste than the protagonists. This seems like Baumbach's most open career admission of the exclusiveness of the milieu he deals with, and also the tone he strikes when dealing with it.
In this way, Marriage Story can feel like a definitive work, both of the strengths and potential limitations of this approach. Humour can bring you acutely close to understanding the truth of pain, or it can destroy your palette like Calpol. Visually, with DOP Robbie Ryan, Baumbach has created something that is appropriate for the fundamental, unrelieving sadness of two beautiful people who do not find each other beautiful anymore, and the issue of their child. This is not just the scrappy handheld New York defaulting of Meyerowitz Stories, or the tricksy New Wave imitation of Frances Ha, but slow, static close-ups, wide shots that emphasise claustrophobia and a rhythm that has the stabbing sharpness of other great films about couples for whom the only thing worse than not spending time together is spending time together (Scenes From a Marriage, We Won't Grow Old Together). Jokes jar in these miserable scenes in a way that reminds us we are watching a film but also somehow makes the experience more uncomfortable and real.
After a gut-wrenching experience like Marriage Story, it is tempting to feel cleansed. As though the makers have put everything on the table—the tears, the disgust, the self-harm, and the loss—so that all that's left is what we decide to do with it. One sparring scene in particular flashes the full range of venom and tenderness that humans capable of love are also capable of. Spittle flies out the corners of a mouth pronouncing death wishes on the mother of his child, repentant tears fall on the divorcee carpet where he bawls at his ex-wife's knees like a child. Moments earlier, Driver's character screams the burden of being simultaneously in your twenties on the front cover of ‘Time Out’ and unable to have sex with the queue forming outside to buy it. The artist is deconstructed. But in Scarlett Johansson's case, foregoing the critically-acclaimed New York theatre company to shoot a shitty TV pilot in LA, she's already deconstructed, past tense. That seems to be her choice, but what is free will if not the opportunity to be a hypocrite. That is probably a question for another time.
— Theo Macdonald