A Los Angeles divorce lawyer named Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) is commiserating with a new client named Charlie Barber (Adam Driver). Charlie's wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), has left him, and he needs guidance. Spitz, a rare nice guy in his dismal field, can only be minimally helpful. Divorce, he tells Charlie, "is like a death without a body."
Writer-director Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story" isn't really a comedy, but it mines some rich laughs from the pain of modern marital collapse. The movie is distinguished by its script, which is trim and gripping, and by the performances of its two stars, who have likely never been better and are sometimes electrifying.
Baumbach begins the picture with Charlie and Nicole recounting the things they loved about each other in the better days of their relationship. But we soon see that this is only a couples therapy exercise; those days are long dead. Slowly but steadily, we get their backstory, which is set in the world of show business. (Baumbach has indicated that the movie is not specifically based on his split with ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh — after which he began his ongoing relationship with actor and now fellow director Greta Gerwig — but he's clearly on intimate terms with the throbbing post-connubial wounds we see depicted here.)
Nicole is a California native who was a well-regarded movie and TV actor when she met Charlie, who was a celebrated downtown theater director in his native New York. Relocating to Manhattan, she began acting in his plays. Eventually, she came to feel she'd become an appendage of his theatrical ambitions. Their love cooled and then iced over when she discovered Charlie had slept with another woman. Nicole moved back to LA, taking their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her. Now, temporarily ensconced in the home of her kooky mom Sandra (Julie Hagerty), she is waiting for Charlie to fly in so she can serve him with divorce papers. This is not a ritual normally associated with mirth, but when Sandra — who has always liked her son-in-law — greets Charlie on arrival with a flurry of her customary hugs and giggles, an exasperated Nicole has to remind her to cool it. ("You have to stop being friends with Charlie.") Similarly, during an argument later on, Nicole slips and calls Charlie "honey," a reminder of how hard it can be to smother old affections.
Charlie and Nicole initially agree to not bring in lawyers as they end their marriage, but the paranoia engendered by divorce gets the better of them. First, Nicole hires a leggy litigator named Nora (Laura Dern) — a landshark in blood-red stilettoes — who quickly trains her eye on a MacArthur grant that Charlie recently won. Spooked when he learns that Nicole will be seeking full custody of their son, Charlie decides that he needs a shark of his own — someone considerably more merciless than Bert Spitz. So he hires a blunt-force divorce warrior named Jay (Ray Liotta), who has all the charm — and some of the demeanor — of a tank.
The movie is a stinging examination of the ways in which divorce lawyers make everything worse: pressuring clients for derogatory stories about their soon-to-be-former spouses and relentlessly draining them of money. (Jay requires a $25,000 retainer before devoting even a thought to Charlie's case, and since his hourly rate is $900, it's clear he'll be running through that opening tranche of cash pretty quickly.) Then there's the series of cringingly funny scenes in which we watch Charlie putting up with a court-ordered "evaluator" (Martha Kelly), a mousy woman who installs herself in his rented LA house in order to render deadpan judgment on his interactions with his visiting son — another of the many degradations attendant upon divorce.
There are luminous moments scattered throughout the movie. In one spiraling argument between Charlie and Nicole, Charlie loses control and barks out some unforgivable words — yet when he collapses in despair, Nicole reflexively moves to his side to console him. And later, when Charlie takes an action that might once have saved his marriage, the look of subtle puzzlement that Johansson puts on Nicole's face is strikingly eloquent: How can he not realize that it's far too late for what he's still hoping?