PLOT A husband and wife in the entertainment business begin the process of divorce.
CAST Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson
RATED R (language and adult themes)
PLAYING AT Malverne Cinema 4
BOTTOM LINE A powerful end-of-love story with stellar turns from Driver and Johansson.
Ted, the hero of 1979's "Kramer vs. Kramer," played by Dustin Hoffman, ought to grab a couple of beers with Charlie, the hero of Noah Baumbach's new "Marriage Story," played by Adam Driver. Though their respective movies are separated by almost exactly 40 years, these two divorced dads would have a lot to talk about.
In his day, Hoffman's Ted marked a new kind of male, one willing to fight his wife (Meryl Streep) for custody of their son and sacrifice professional ambition to become what we now call an involved father. For Charlie, a New York theater director separating from his actress-wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), there's nothing groundbreaking in wanting custody of their grade-schooler, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Being a dedicated dad is just a given.
To call "Marriage Story" a bittersweet and beautifully written film with stunning, near-perfect performances from its two stars seems almost beside the point. Like all of Baumbach's films, it draws partly from the writer-director's real life (he and the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, who have a son, divorced in 2013) and alternates scenes of wrenching drama with moments of absurdist humor. More than anything, though, "Marriage Story" provides a case study in what has and hasn't changed when it comes to the complications of marriage, separation and parenthood.
Nicole's complaints are familiar: She's been overshadowed by her successful husband thanks to a combination of motherly obligations and a giving personality. "I got smaller," she tells divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (a fantastic Laura Dern), who rightly or wrongly equates female empowerment with dollar figures. Also familiar is Charlie's cluelessness: He has no idea what Nicole is talking about. Now she's gone back to mother (Julie Hagerty) in Los Angeles with their son, while he's in New York feeling outmaneuvered. Alan Alda and Ray Liotta play Charlie's possible lawyers – the first a non-confrontational soul, the second a double-breasted bully who smears Nicole across the courtroom floor. "We're not going to win if she's a perfect mother," he explains.
Truth be told, the movie is mostly rooting for Charlie, the result of a perhaps unavoidable bias on Baumbach's part. But Baumbach also tries to respect Nicole's anger. In an astounding 11-minute scene, Charlie and Nicole try to hash out their differences in private, only to end up hurling accusations, vitriol and death wishes. It's the movie in microcosm, a tour-de-force for both actors and something of a surprise from Johansson, whose dramatic capabilities have recently been hidden under superhero spandex.
"Marriage Story" doesn't provide the same neat closure as "Kramer vs. Kramer," though that's part of the point. The union of Charlie and Nicole may come to an end, but the irony, of course, is that they'll always be together.