Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Divorce isn’t always a tragedy. Regardless of the effort they put in, some people simply should not spend the rest of their lives together, and that’s okay. It does, however, often come to resemble the theater of the absurd. Whether disassembling a whimsical weekend vow in Vegas or decades of two lives mutually lived, a couple in the throes of divorce is attempting a kind of relationship alchemy. The great intangible weight of emotion, promises, and hopes somehow gets distilled into a distanced accounting of assets to divvy up. That conversion – from the unknowable and undefinable to the precisely calculated – seems uncanny, particularly to an outsider, yet it happens to nearly half of all marriages in America.
The end of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole’s (Scarlett Johansson) marriage might not amount to a tragedy, but the drawn-out death certainly qualifies as traumatic. Qualities that have propelled Charlie’s burgeoning career as a New York City theater director to the threshold of stardom have gradually suffocated his wife. Also the star of his theater company, Nicole relocates her husband to the sofa and herself and their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) to Los Angeles just as their latest production readies itself for a Broadway debut. Although it was her name on the marquee that lured initial audiences to Charlie’s plays, eventually his ambition overwhelmed her desire to return to a career in film and her family in California.
Charlie – perhaps selfishly – is flabbergasted by his wife’s insistence on all she has forgone in deference to his advancement. Disbelief turns to horror when, after a bit of helpful advice leads to a cathartic consultation, Natalie enlists the help of Nora (Laura Dern), a slick LA divorce attorney. You see, they were supposed to handle the split without lawyers: amicably, an informal division of stuff (which Charlie maintains Nicole can have her pick of) and time with their son (which Charlie maintains they should split evenly).
Nora’s civilized cry for the dogs of war transforms a respectful – if awkward – negotiation of co-parenting into a fierce defense of personal territory, a space of shifting boundaries that had been previously shared not so long ago. Writer/director Noah Baumbach achieves what very few mutual friends manage during a divorce: he refuses to pick a side. This carefully maintained neutrality provides ample room to play for Johansson and Driver, who operate in a world of half-truths and full emotions to great effect.
Due to her role as instigator of the split, and an extended family for Nicole that helps provide added depth, Johansson’s role proves the meatier of the two leads at first. However, a truly harrowing tête-à-tête in the film’s third act proves both the centerpiece in an extended series of excellent character moments, as well as the brightest spotlight on Driver’s befuddled and exhausted husband. While Johansson has spent the last two hours repeating and refining her (not invalid) reasons for walking away, Charlie has been stuck on the back foot, too preoccupied with advice to put forth the right façade to confront the reality staring him down. Finally, in the privacy of his thinly furnished LA apartment, he can reveal just how tarnished this once-golden relationship truly was by the end.
As in life, there are sweet moments interspersed with the bitter. Most revolve around Charlie and Nicole’s time with their son, played quite well and without guile by Azhy Robertson. There’s no small amount of black humor to be found as well; when isn’t there, in the theater of the absurd? And all of these moments combine into something less optimistic than it is resigned, but ultimately more encouraging than it is depressing. Sometimes divorce is a good thing, sometimes it’s a genuine loss. It is always survivable, though, and serves to remind that stories find meaning in their endings, no matter how unanticipated they may be.