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Could Be Worse

Noah Baumbach, Scarlett Johansson, and Adam Driver tangle in Marriage Story.

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Anyone familiar with the work of Noah Baumbach knows that his favorite subject — practically his only field of inquiry — is the study of dysfunctional social groupings, particularly families. In that respect, Marriage Story is no different than The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg, or Frances Ha. Essentially characters get together, disagree amid gales of dialogue, and end the movie about one inch further along in their understanding of each other.

It's a fairly successfully strategy. Baumbach is a skilled writer of lines with a knack for attracting actors to his curiously ingrown world of dissatisfied urbanites on the make for ... Well, what exactly is it that Baumbach's kvetching, overeducated people really need to get them from Point A to B?

We ask ourselves that as we watch Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) trying to disentangle herself from her husband Charlie (Adam Driver). She's an actor who wants to move back to Los Angeles and work in TV; he's a playwright/director in charge of his own stage troupe and adamantly opposed to leaving Brooklyn. They have a young son who drinks in their arguing like a nice warm cup of hemlock at bedtime.

The combination of the actors and their predicament — regardless of how familiar it all is — is so well tuned that we can relax and enjoy Nicole and Charlie's misery, in complete confidence that even though Baumbach has his finger on the unhealthy pulse of 21st-century urban life, the combatants (and we) will be no worse off at the end than we were at the beginning. That's the assurance we always get with a Baumbach film. Could be worse.

Johansson and Driver are both very good, although these days Driver is in serious danger of overexposure. The happiest casting surprise, however, is Laura Dern as Nicole's aggressive divorce attorney. No one ever stops talking for any reason. Baumbach is the anti-Ozu, and Marriage Story is something we can look at any time we feel too happy about ourselves. Enjoy.

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