Marriage Story is all about the divorce

A- Comedic drama
Written & directed by Noah Baumbach

This sad, heartwarming, and yet deeply funny film should be called Divorce Story. You know from the start that the marriage is over. If you’ve ever gone through a divorce, especially if there are children involved, you’ll recognize the events and the emotions. In fact, you’ll recognize them even if you ever watched someone close to you go through one.

Although the film is made primarily from the husband’s point of view, neither the husband nor the wife is a villain in this divorce. They’re good, loving people who know what they want to do. The problem is that they want different things. If there are villains in this movie, it’s the lawyers.

Adam Driver plays Charlie, the husband in this collapsing marriage. He’s an up-and-coming stage director with an important career in New York City. His actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), is an important member of his acting troupe.

But Nicole doesn’t like New York, and she feels like she’s only doing what her husband wants her to do. She wants to go back home to Los Angeles, where she has family and an offer for a TV series. The big problem: Who gets their eight-year-old son?

If Nicole was willing to stay in New York, with both parents living near each other, there would be no problem. Young Henry could simply spend one week at his mother’s home and the next one with his father. But that’s not in the cards. Nicole takes Henry to LA, where he was born, and that forces the legalities to go westward.

Soon both parents are burning a fortune on divorce lawyers, which include three very recognizable faces: Laura Dern, Alan Alda, and Ray Liotta. Alda and Liotta play off their public images. Alda’s nice-guy family lawyer has a touch of M*A*S*H’s talkative Hawkeye, while Liotta’s rich and ruthless solicitor feels like a very successful and barely legal goodfella.

Speaking of familiar faces, Julie Hagerty gives a wonderful comic turn as Nicole’s mother, who tends to take Charlie’s side. Hagerty proved herself one of the funniest actresses in the world in Airplane! That she never got as good a role since shows how badly Hollywood treats funny women.

And yet, they both still have just a little bit of affection for their soon-to-be exes. But that affection can turn quickly into a deep, hot rage.

Near the end of the film, both Johansson and Driver get a chance to show off their singing chops. They both have more than acceptable, clearly-trained voices. But neither are good enough to create a second career.

Some time ago, I watched friends go through a bi-coastal divorce. It was hard for the parents, but they worked it out. Baumbach shows the pain and the struggles, but the love, as well.

Marriage Story opens Friday at the Clay.