Wehave seen so many other worlds in movies recently that shabby domestic realism, showing the details of a marriage and its break-up, real streets and familiar furniture, can come as something of a shock. The shock is all the greater when the leading characters, like Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, come from those other worlds. Johansson has played the Black Widow in six Marvel movies in the last five years; Driver has been Kylo Ren in Star Wars three times. How could they have got involved in such an exitless world, so stranded among a dearth of solutions?

Are they dreaming? Won’t they wake up and plunge into violent and satisfactory action? It is a tribute to the acting of both that we quickly forget about their imaginary prehistory, and of course the worlds of theatre in New York and television in Los Angeles are shabby only in comparison with the posher parts of a fantasy universe. But we don’t forget having had the thought, and we may wonder whether a flight from fantasy is not often part of what is felt to be real.

The film opens with an engaging variant on this question – engaging until it becomes cruel, and both fantasy and reality disappear into silence. We see Nicole (Johansson) walking along a New York street, signing a petition, playing with her child at home, cutting her husband’s hair. A voiceover, which we learn is that of her husband, Charlie (Driver), interprets what we are seeing: it’s a kind of visual love song. Then the roles are reversed, and her voice tells us about him, with shots of him at home and at work, cooking meals, looking after their child. The whole double set is delicately done, making no dramatic claims but clearly caught up in what can only be happiness. It’s an intimate start to a movie whose subject we can’t imagine – beyond feeling something has to go wrong, because that’s what realism and narrative require.

It’s already gone wrong. And what we have been seeing wasn’t realism, or it was realism only of an elaborately displaced and selective kind. Nicole and Charlie are meeting with a marriage counsellor, making a start on their separation. The counsellor has asked each of them to write and then read from a short text saying what they like best about each other, a sort of celebration of the way things were before they became the way they are. At the appointed session, Nicole and Charlie sit there with their scripts, looking uncomfortable. Then Nicole says she doesn’t want to read hers. Charlie says he’ll read his, but she doesn’t want to hear it. Session over, and the real film begins. What we saw previously wasn’t even a movie within a movie. It was a movie imagined on behalf of the characters and not released. Or rather, released only to us. Later Charlie does get to look at Nicole’s text, because he finds their eight-year-old son reading it, but there is no accompanying montage.

Charlie is a theatre director, and Nicole has been his lead actress, starring most recently in a performance of Electra (Sophocles not O’Neill, although the thought of mourning would not be inappropriate). She feels stifled, not a person in her own right, just a part of Charlie’s show. A good show, but not a life. Now she is off to Los Angeles to star in a television pilot, and perhaps move on to directing. LA is where she comes from, and she can live there with her over-the-top mother (Julie Hagerty). Charlie can visit their son now and again. Throughout the film Charlie keeps denying this new geography. ‘We’re a New York family,’ he says again and again, as if the words were a mantra that would keep everything at bay. It’s hard even to begin to say how wrong he is. They are not a family now, and cities don’t help to classify families anyway. There is also a touch of another New York sentiment in the phrase: the deep conviction that there isn’t anywhere else.

There are a few moments in Marriage Story where Nicole and Charlie remember their affection for each other, and a kindly shadow of the opening scenes hovers over them. The suggestion is not that they may get back together, only that what and whom they once loved are still part of who they are – when they can afford the memory, that is. Mostly the film goes the other way, and the genre becomes a melodrama on the run from tenderness. The effect has to do with law and money and the fact that divorce in many places, and perhaps (the movie suggests) especially in California, is a battlefield, not a quiet parting of the ways.

Nicole hires a lawyer recommended by her television producer, and everything changes. The lawyer – Nora Fanshaw, brilliantly played by Laura Dern – knows it is her job to orchestrate and make profitable the anger Nicole may not feel, and she is more than equal to any legal opponent who may show up. Charlie hoped to use a New York firm, but has to turn to California because that is where the case is being filed, and having talked to Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) and found him far too nice to win the game, he hires Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta; Baumbach as writer is not going far for his fictional names), the meanest and most expensive lawyer in town. His retainer is $25,000, and he charges $950 an hour. If the question is stupid, he says, Charlie can ask Jay’s associate, who charges only $400.

The two great set pieces of the later part of the movie are forms of shoot-out, quests for maximum damage. In the first the lawyers do the mutual accusing and the clients mostly keep quiet. The talk is about felony and ambush, about whatever forms of guilt might earn money in a settlement, about Nicole’s supposed drinking and Charlie’s actual infidelity.

In the second scene Nicole and Charlie are alone, and both are really angry now. They blame each other fiercely for everything that went wrong. She says he put her through hell. He smashes his fist into the wall and says he wakes up wishing she were dead, hoping some accident or disease would carry her off. Then he collapses in tears, and she comforts him. They both apologise. Just like the old days? No, just a sign that there are no old days.

What lingers in the mind here? The law, the frustration, the money, the vanity, the love and custody of the child? The disappearance of the movie that wasn’t a movie? What would a superheroine or superhero do about any of this? It may be that the very good acting of Johansson and Driver offers the best answers to these questions, not because they are plausibly ordinary, whatever that would mean, but because they seem to know so well what it means to leave their fantasy roles behind, to be bereft of magic. A.O. Scott, thinking not only of this movie, recently said of Driver that he was like a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces. This is how he manages to be a cipher when needed (in BlacKkKlansman, say) and a person who in Marriage Story knows how to combine arrogance and helplessness in convincing ways. Johansson in this movie is the woman who can’t kick her way out of trouble like the Black Widow, yet makes a complete and strangely composed puzzle out of the gap between who she is and who she isn’t.

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