You may, as I did, hear loud alarm bells ringing throughout the first act of Noah Baumbach's much-touted new Netflix venture Marriage Story. Here are scenes from the marriage of two impossibly successful New York creatives: a hotshot theatre director, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his long-time leading lady, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a pairing reportedly modelled on Baumbach and his sometime wife Jennifer Jason Leigh. The threat of self-absorption would be high enough without the voiceover in which this pair list what they love about one another: in one of the cutesy-poo domestic snapshots that follows, she buys him a trumpet for his birthday, with no indication her man can play a note. "You guys are so attractive," gushes a babysitter upon the couple's return to the perfectly appointed apartment they share with young son Henry (Azhy Robertson). At this point, I warily noted, there was still two hours to go. Baumbach's previous film, 2017's The Meyerowitz Stories, explored a range of personalities within an extended family, not always conforming to some metropolitan-elite ideal. Marriage Story could, for some while, pass without detection under the alternative title of Luvvie Story, and while you spot exactly why that metropolitan elite has embraced it so, we might wonder what's in these 136 minutes for the rest of us. Schadenfreude, perhaps? One wrinkle is that these aspirational soulmates, joined at the hip in so many respects, are about to undergo a protracted divorce: those love letters Baumbach opens with turn out to be part of a mediation exercise, and they go unread and unheard for the longest while, as neither party is really feeling it. They will, though; the small miracle of the film is that we eventually do, too.
During the standoff that follows - generally quiet, with fractious interludes I'll discuss in due course - the movie opens up, opens out, becomes a markedly different experience altogether. As Nicole strikes out to begin working on a TV show in L.A., leaving the preoccupied Charlie to shuttle back-and-forth between the two coasts in a bid to negotiate a workable custody agreement, Marriage Story shapes up into a tragicomedy about two decent people - people who still like, even love one another, as those letters would suggest - trying to do the right thing in the middle of a generally terrible thing. However civil Nicole and Charlie remain, their separation will carry them beyond the consoling, close-knit theatrical community in which their love was first fostered and into contact with individuals representing the legal establishment - professionally unemotional machine-people who charge by the hour to make the lives of you and your loved ones that little bit poorer. Here, Baumbach casts superbly. Laura Dern (representing Nicole) makes her Nora exactly the kind of high-heeled, on-point alpha female who might well embolden a client while unnerving the men sitting across the table from her; meanwhile, the great Alan Alda (for Charlie) is proving so heartbreakingly doddering he has to be replaced by Ray Liotta's attack dog Jay - a small, painful divorce-within-a-divorce, and a reminder of the old ways being left behind as the couple's world and furniture comes to be rearranged.
Back and forth the film goes, too, touching down on one side - of the country, of this relationship - then the other. The last divorce movie to generate this level of awards-season's buzz, 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer, prompted savage debate amid the Seventies sex wars as to whether it was pro- or anti-feminist. (Look at it again now, and it merely seems matter-of-fact, grown-up: a film made by adults about adults, as opposed to all the kids' stuff the studios now pump out.) You can easily imagine a tougher, more punishing retelling of Marriage Story, perhaps one informed by the breaking news of the #MeToo movement: as it is, Baumbach plops one over-enthusiastic hugger in Charlie's theatre group but has him played for laughs by Wallace Shawn, and the closest the film comes to physical violence is when Driver puts his fist through a wall mid-argument. I also suspect that some enterprising blogger with time on their hands - perhaps the same misguided soul who got their underwear in such a twist over Anna Paquin's role in The Irishman - is already counting the lines Johansson has in relation to Driver, so as to use that ratio as the basis of an attack on Marriage Story for perceived gender bias. Generally, the film struck me as even-handed, genial and fair: everybody, including the audience, winds up getting more or less what they deserve. Part of that equanimity is written into the script, which adheres to a gently ironic juxtaposition, taking care to lay divorce's more painful aspects alongside the absurd and funny. It's Nicole at a party, coming off the phone after a row with Charlie to be confronted by some chancer whose opening gambit is "the Japanese are making some really interesting tequilas", or a life-changing child custody pow-wow that gets interrupted by the mundanity of an office sandwich order; in a particularly telling moment, the newly decisive Nicole will make Charlie's mind up for him.
Through to its final tying-up, this is a film of such small, nice, telling touches. A lawyer sneezes in court, causing Charlie to mutter a sotto voce "bless you"; a few minutes later, a cut reveals a crowd of plaintiffs sat at the back of the courtroom, awaiting their own hearings. In such moments, Baumbach draws a wicked parallel between theatreland and the legal arena: he dramatises how this process gives his show-people protagonists an entirely unwanted audience, how divorce means you're always being watched or observed for signs of weakness or liability, just when you might want to retreat from sight and curl up into a ball. Yet of all the films up for the year's big prizes, Marriage Story is the one that feels most conspicuously minor-key and anecdotal. (Nicole and Charlie's fallout would have merited but a single chapter in the sprawling The Meyerowitz Stories.) One consequence of that is that its bigger setpieces - most notably a drawn-out, no-holds-barred marital argument that surely owes a debt to a similar scene in Richard Linklater's Before Midnight - felt to me a little hollow and performative, altogether too much the work of theatre folk: you half-expect Charlie to stop the scene mid-tiff to offer Nicole a whole new round of notes.
Nevertheless, Johansson seizes on these moments with an emotional intelligence that went into hibernation during her MCU endeavours; she makes her own case for Nicole (and thus, I suppose, for Leigh) as being better off Broadway, and arguably a better parent than Charlie, whose plays will always be his real children. Driver retains that mellow vibe that gets us to lean in, but also betrays flashes of frustration - an underlying tetchiness at being dragged out Cali way to witness one of his productions (Henry) being removed from his control - which suggest how tough Charlie (and, I guess, Baumbach) might be to live with; if the structure and gaze means we feel closer to him, the extra time spent in his company reveals how careerism has left him close to a wreck. (Even when he goofs off at Halloween, he's an invisible man, a ghost.) More Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Nicole's sister and mother would have been welcome, but otherwise there aren't many shortcomings or wrong turns in a skilfully drawn portrait of people muddling through, doing the best they can, and coming at the last to realise something essential about themselves and their relationships. Even if you haven't escaped the wreckage of a failed marriage, or come close to treading the boards, you too will likely recognise some of the very human behaviour Baumbach lays out before us here. And emerge wondering who got custody of the trumpet.
Marriage Story is now streaming on Netflix.