Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver bring painful truth to Marriage Story

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      Starring Adam Driver. Rating unavailable

      Marriage Story is an obvious passion project for Noah Baumbach, who has focused on fragmented families (resembling his own), from The Squid and the Whale to his recent Netflix outing, The Meyerowitz Stories. Here, he boils marital life down to Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as Charlie and Nicole, a New York couple with everything going for them—it seems.

      Charlie’s a successful experimental-theatre director about to make his Broadway debut with a modernist version of Elektra. (Talk about daddy issues!) And Hollywood is headhunting Nicole, his muse and rising star. They have a cute, not overly precocious eight-year-old son (Azhy Robertson) they both dote on. And when we meet the couple, each reads long, highly detailed descriptions about what they most love about each other. Unfortunately, these letters are part of the divorce mediation they’re going through.

      Rather than show us what led up to their untimely split, Baumbach moves forward, through Nicole’s relocation to Los Angeles, to work on a sci-fi series, with both parties caught up in separation woes usually reserved for the very wealthy. She hooks up with a go-for-the-throat divorce lawyer, played by Laura Dern, who appears to have driven down from the Santa Barbara of Big Little Lies. Charlie feels pushed to find his own shark—Ray Liotta, so what could go wrong?—although he settles for a more humanistic type (Alan Alda).

      The split is almost as tough on friends and family, with Nicole’s mother (Airplane’s Julie Hagerty, in a terrific screen return) having a particularly hard time picking sides. This may sound like anguished stuff, but while the stars provide enough searing emotion to moisten even the driest eyes, Baumbach finds raucous humour and wry insight throughout. Happily for the two-and-a-quarter-hour running time, he keeps a sharp eye on entertainment value. Near the end, both parties—still on opposite coasts—perform one-take, complete songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Nicole’s is with her family; Charlie does his alone.

      In the end, there’s a sense that this Story is weighted towards Charlie’s POV, especially when you know that it covers some terrain of Baumbach’s own rough break with Jennifer Jason Leigh, with notable ellipses. But Johansson, at her mature best, doesn’t let anyone else totally dominate the proceedings. Her essential truthfulness, like the movie itself, gets under your skin.