Noah Baumbach Channels His Personal Life Into a Remarkable Work With ‘Marriage Story’

14 years after the release of his breakthrough film “The Squid and the Whale,” a semi-autobiographical dramedy about divorce through the eyes of a teenaged son (Jesse Eisenberg), filmmaker Noah Baumbach examines the dissolution of a union through a different lens with “Marriage Story.” Since 2005, Baumbach himself has been married, become a father, and gotten divorced, and this life experience and maturity has found its way into this latest feature, which no doubt contains autobiographical elements as well. Adam Driver is his proxy this time around as Charlie Barber, a New York theater director. By the time the story begins, both he and his wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), have accepted that their marriage is over, and now they just have to navigate the details, the most important being the custody of their eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).The film opens with voice-overs from first Charlie, and then Nicole, each fondly describing the other, an exercise that is revealed to be a part of a process they are going through with a divorce mediator (Robert Smigel). It’s a sequence full of tenderness, but it’s not long before the warmth fades and other feelings take over. What starts off as relatively amicable proceedings descends into something more heated, leading to fine performances from Driver and Johansson filled with raw emotion. 

Not unlike Baumbach’s former wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, the character of Nicole is an accomplished actress from a showbiz family. She even had a memorable role in a high school film in which she appeared topless, not unlike Leigh in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” But enough details are distorted to give Baumbach some distance, and much of what the fictional pair go through will surely resonate with many who have dealt with the death of a marriage and/or a custody battle. Divorce isn’t easy for anyone, but Charlie and Nicole’s situation becomes especially complicated after Nicole makes what Charlie believes is a temporary move to her hometown of Los Angeles to further her career. Once a raising starlet who graced the cover of “Seventeen Magazine,” Nicole has spent the past ten years as a New York-based actress appearing primarily in her husband’s theater productions, and now she wants to expand into television. As a director, Charlie is used to being a control, so it’s a tough adjustment when his family is on the other side of the country. Making things more difficult for him is the fact that Nicole has decided to file for divorce in Los Angeles and make the city her and Henry’s permanent home. Determined to have his son back in NYC, he first hires an affordable, genial lawyer (Alan Alada) before turning to a legal “shark” (Ray Liotta).

While the whole cast, which includes Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Nicole’s mother and sister, respectively, is great, the film is Driver and Johansson’s, and they both give Oscar-worthy performances, particularly in a one-on-one scene after the divorce has become acrimonious and both are done with holding back feelings. We also see a heart-wrenching moment of vulnerability from Driver after Charlie has a moment where he’s facing a future in which he’s not actively involved in raising his son.

Overall, Baumbach does a great job of finding a balance between the cynical and the sentimental with “Marriage Story.” He’s also fair when it comes to balancing out the male and female point of views, and Nicole’s frustration is palpable as she tries to get Charlie to realize how much of herself she allowed to disappear during their marriage. Although the character of Nora (Laura Dern), Nicole’s ambitious attorney, is somewhat over the top, making the viewer feel like they’re watching “Big Little Divorce” at times, she makes great points about the higher standards to which mothers are held during custody hearings. “The idea of a good father is only 30 years old,” she points out in one of the film’s most insightful moments.

Marriage Story” opens Nov. 6 in select theaters and begins streaming Dec. 6 on Netflix.