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Splitting up is hard in episodic drama 'Marriage Story'

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Talk to Her Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver pull at the heartstrings in this new Netflix-produced film.
  • Talk to Her Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver pull at the heartstrings in this new Netflix-produced film.

In Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, anguished husband Charlie (Adam Driver) notices a throw-pillow in the office of his saber-toothed L.A. divorce lawyer, Jay (Ray Liotta). It's embroidered with the words "Eat, Drink and Remarry." Looking for repeat business?

Baumbach previously directed The Squid and the Whale, about the tumult between a divorced pair (Laura Linney, Jeff Daniels); if there are similar autobiographical elements here, it proves we cannot learn from our parents' mistakes. In voiceover, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) reads aloud the things she loves about her husband—the way he came out of a Midwestern background and became "more New Yorker than New Yorkers." Charlie is a theatrical director, but his wife composed this apparent love note as part of a counseling program carried out just before the divorce. The idea is that if Nicole writes down the reasons she married Charlie, it'll make the exit graceful. No such luck.

The quarrel between this couple is reminiscent of the split found in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. He's a serious New Yorker, she's L.A. born and bred; her mother (the ageless Julie Hagerty) was an actress, as is her sister (Nurse Jackie's Merritt Wever, very funny). The split becomes irrevocable when Nicole gets a role in a TV show, leaving Charlie to take his production of Electra to Broadway. This leaves custody battles for their kid Henry (Azhy Robertson) who is not above manipulation in dealing with his parents.

Baumbach finds new depths in his performers—in Driver's wounded side and Johansson's macho side. The passing of various Halloweens gives this film a sense of time's passage. One year, Johansson dresses up as Let's Dance-era Bowie: the 1983 edition of Bowie, the year before she was born.

Marriage Story authentically portrays that aspect of the tragedy of breakup wherein the person wounding you is the person to whom you once looked for solace. In the end, the bond between Charlie and Nicole endures, through a matched pair of songs from Sondheim's Company—one sung at an L.A. family party, the other at a Broadway bar. Marriage Story would be the worst first-date movie ever, but more seasoned couples can see it and huddle for comfort.

'Marriage Story' is playing in select theaters and is available to stream on Netflix Dec. 6.

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