I like to watch Noah Baumbach’s films for the same reason I like to watch families argue at restaurants. His characters thrive on their cruelty. Watching them, you get the sense that they’re drawing their life energy from the terrible things they say to each other, that they really couldn’t survive without the prospect of another sadistic chat at the dinner table. The dialogue unfolds like one long cocktail party — “philistine” is a word that gets a lot of play — and everyone moves in a numb haze. They’re mean and powerful and bold like people who have just discovered Ayn Rand. They think they’re self-contained units, powerless to touch others or themselves, until at the very last moment they do.
There are people like that in Baumbach’s latest film, but they aren’t the main event. “Marriage Story” — streaming now on Netflix — is a film about divorce that often feels like something else: a romantic comedy, maybe, or one of those tragedies where you learn that the boat is going to sink three minutes after meeting the young lovers. Baumbach manages to make divorce seem like the inevitable fate of two good people who love each other, and not a plot that they themselves have set in motion. At every moment, it feels like the story could suddenly turn around and morph. “There’s the iceberg!” you want to say, “Just turn the ship a little to the left!” It feels that way, in part, because Baumbach dedicates the first six minutes of “Marriage Story” to telling a completely different kind of story. In the film’s opening sequence, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson list all of the things they love about each other. She cuts his hair and opens the lids on all their jars. He daydreams on the subway and doesn’t know how to win a game of Monopoly. It’s a whimsical montage of everyday life, a love note to the idea of marriage. When the final cut lands in a mediator’s office, and we find the couple holding the lists in their hands, an assignment from the mediator in their divorce proceedings, it feels like a cruel twist of fate, and not the movie that was always unfolding.
Watching the typical Baumbach family, you wonder, “How did they ever make it, these terrible people?” But watching “Marriage Story,” you think the opposite: “How did they ever fail?” In the first few minutes of the film, Driver and Johansen’s characters confess what most Baumbach characters never do — that they care for one another deeply. In the story that follows, they press on each other’s scabs, but no one’s alluding to Kafka, and Adam Driver’s face looks like an open wound. When Scarlett Johansson gives her soon-to-be ex-husband a terse good night, the camera hangs with her as she stumbles back to her room and breaks into quiet sobs. It’s strange to watch her weep into the camera, because Baumbach characters aren’t supposed to cry. His other films are full of people delivering blows, but we never see the fallout. It’s part of what makes his films so vigorous and tense. Listening to his characters go at each other, you feel like you’re watching a pin collide with a balloon over and over. At every moment, you expect them to explode, but instead they stomach the blows and hop back up again. It’s only in “Marriage Story” that people don’t have that kind of bounce. At one point in the film, Adam Driver pretends to run a blade across his arm, as a joke for the woman who has come to judge his parenting for the divorce court, then looks down at his wrist and sees that he has actually sliced it. He grabs his arm as splatters of red appear on his elbow, and smiles up at the divorce court woman. He asks if he can help her with anything else. “Marriage Story” is the sort of film where people try to keep things light while simultaneously trying to stop the blood flow.
About 15 years ago, Baumbach directed another film about divorce, “The Squid and the Whale,” based on his memories of his parents splitting up during his childhood. The film begins with the soon-to-be-broken family sparring in a tennis match, which ends with the mother taking a tennis ball to the stomach. As the teenage son prepares to serve, his father whispers, “If you can, try and hit it at your mother’s backhand. It’s pretty weak.” It’s all downhill from there. The father begins an affair with his student. The mother begins an affair with the tennis coach. When one of the children asks about the divorce, the mother stares back in confusion. “Don’t most of your friends already have divorced parents?” she says.
Since filming that movie, Baumbach has gone through his own divorce, and in many ways his latest film is an effort to retell the same story from the perspective of the parents. In “Marriage Story,” Baumbach replaces the careless cats he casts as mother and father in his debut film with two people who care deeply about each other and their son. This isn’t a family misbehaving at a restaurant. As Adam Driver sobs on the floor, and Scarlett Johansen strokes his hair, Baumbach asks you to see things from their point of view. There’s no glee underpinning the violence they do to each other. As they sit there, crumpled in an L.A. living room, it’s possible to believe that they’re both victims of the same natural disaster, whatever continental drift has severed their bond.
In one of the later scenes in “Marriage Story,” Adam Driver sings a song about preparing to fall in love. His face is exposed and raw as he stares into the camera, belting out the lyrics to “Being Alive” in one flat key. The song is from the finale of “Company,” a Stephen Sondheim musical about married people falling in and out of love, and the notes are big and loud and certain. They’re meant to bring the musical together in one soaring number about the power of other people to move you, but when Adam Driver sings them, standing alone at a microphone in a Manhattan cafe, they come out like a hoarse scream. He’s groping for the words, marking more than singing, like he’s trying to figure out how the song would go if someone were actually living it. He hits the notes all wrong, because the song doesn’t fit his story. He’s not the male hero in a musical about preparing to fall in love. Instead, his marriage is over. We’ve just seen him sign the papers. In another film, it might be strange to see the male lead singing about love one scene after his divorce, but for Baumbach, the two stories aren’t mutually exclusive. You can live both at once: the movie about falling in love, and the one about falling out of it.