Nicole is being unreasonable.
At the beginning of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, Nicole and her husband, Charlie Barber, are sitting down with a mediator in a warmly lit space, both clutching handwritten odes they’ve written about each other. The mediator—and by the way, slapping a sweater vest and five rings on Robert Smigel, the man behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, is a masterpiece of counterintuitive casting—is explaining that he wants to set a positive tone before the inevitable contentiousness that comes with separation and divorce. These are two people who loved each other once, and it’s helpful to remember those good qualities before the bitter recriminations start.
But Nicole is having none of it. She doesn’t want to read her letter. She doesn’t want Charlie, who likes what he’s written, to read all the nice things he has to say about her. And what’s more, she’s really not liking the conspiracy of reasonability that’s developing between Charlie and the mediator. “Well, I think I’m going to go,” she snorts, “if you two are gonna just sit around and suck each other’s dicks.”
From the onset of Marriage Story, Scarlett Johansson has a hill to climb. As Nicole, she is the instigator of this divorce. It’s her initiative to leave New York for the West Coast to try to pick up the Hollywood career she abandoned when she married Charlie and became the cornerstone of his independent theater troupe. (That detail alone makes her seem like a sellout, underlined later by a scene where she’s on set, cradling a baby-to-be-CGI’d-later.) It’s also her initiative soon afterward to hire a high-end divorce attorney and establish a case for residency in Los Angeles, which blindsides Charlie and puts him at an unrecoverable disadvantage in their custody battle. She’s opted to play this cruel game for keeps.
“No-fault divorce” may be the law of the land, but it’s not a law moviegoers are required or inclined to follow. Much of the discussion around Marriage Story has boiled down to “Who’s the bad guy here,” which leads to further questions about how well Baumbach has balanced the audience’s sympathies between the two parties. And again, in the early going especially, Johansson’s Nicole is put at a disadvantage, because it’s Charlie who has been laid low, and it’s Adam Driver who seems most vulnerable. The grace of the film is found in Charlie’s (and Baumbach’s and the audience’s) coming to terms with why this divorce was necessary, but before getting there, it’s more about why it’s happening to him.
Though both leads are Oscar nominees, Johansson’s performance has been the slightly less heralded of the two. She doesn’t match Driver’s emotional pyrotechnics. (Though she comes close.) She doesn’t have the most memorable Stephen Sondheim number from Company. (Though hers is awfully charming.) And fundamentally, Marriage Story isn’t about Nicole. While Baumbach gives her the space to clarify her feelings and motivations, he doesn’t structure the film like a courtroom, where both parties get equal time. Charlie’s perspective is more privileged, leaving Johansson to keep Nicole from becoming the villain. And it’s on Johansson, too, to make it seem like Nicole has made the right choice—not just for her but for both of them, and for their 8-year-old son, Henry.
Considering the full arc of her career—which is now 25 years old, even though she’s only 35—it’s a bit unusual that Johansson is playing an up-front, assertive character like Nicole, because she tends to take on characters who are obscure objects of desire or who wait in the tall grass for their moment to strike. Her other Oscar-nominated role this year, the mother of a member of the Hitler Youth in Jojo Rabbit, is a typical example: She’s mounted a quiet resistance to the Nazis, including hiding a Jewish girl in their apartment, but she’s a passive mother to little Jojo, who’s taken Der Führer as an imaginary friend. She bets the patience and persistence of her love will be more persuasive than anger and admonition would be. Hitler is the Beatles at Kennedy Airport to him—the director, Taika Waititi, opens the film with a German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—and there’s no competing with that.
There’s an essential privacy to Johansson’s characters, who are mysteries to others, if not mysteries to themselves. As Rebecca in Ghost World (2001), she mostly defers to her best friend Enid (Thora Birch) because she hasn’t formed a personality of her own; when she does find herself, she’s heartbreakingly bourgeois. Her detachment is total as a listless college grad who gloms on to Bill Murray’s movie star in a Tokyo hotel in Lost in Translation, and her beauty is treated as the dramatic fulcrum of her Woody Allen movies, starting with Match Point (2005) and bleeding into other films like Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Prestige. This characteristic finally began to evolve in 2013, though, as Under the Skin and Her both recognized Johansson’s secret power: She’s alluring to men right up to the point where she grows past them (or, you know, grinds them into meat).
What’s striking about Johansson in Marriage Story is her accessibility and emotional directness. Her money scene in the film, when a lawyer (Laura Dern) coaxes Nicole into venting about her marriage to Charlie and her own stifled dreams, is startlingly unvarnished for any movie star, much less one who’s so often asked to hide her feelings. There’s something thrilling about seeing Nicole come into herself in that scene. At first, she’s worried about what this will mean for Charlie, who’s not going to like the move to L.A., and she doesn’t want any money from him. (Dern’s response to that, a barely floated “Hmmm …,” is reason alone to support her Best Supporting Actress campaign.) But as Nicole continues talking, she literally gets her feet under her. Johansson stands up and starts prowling around the office, reminiscing about the early part of her relationship with Charlie before accounting for her disappearance in their marriage, which served his ambitions while distancing her from her own. She describes the chance to do a pilot as “a piece of earth that’s yours,” and the mockery and jealousy that followed from Charlie, who could accept it only as a check to fold back into his theater company. Though Charlie has had an affair, that’s not really at issue here, which makes Nicole’s motives for a divorce a much harder lift for Johansson than infidelity alone might be. She has to sell the audience on her craving for personhood, which is something that’s expected to be sacrificed at the altar of marriage and motherhood. Johansson does it through tears, but with increasing confidence and conviction. And we have to hold on to that for the rest of the film.
The height difference between Driver and Johansson would seem to put her at a disadvantage, but she leverages the situation to make Nicole seem more courageous, finally able to assert herself against this much more imposing figure. Nicole and Charlie’s doomed last-ditch effort to come to an agreement may take time to rescue from the memes, but it’s worth watching again with the volume turned off, just to see how Driver and Johansson handle themselves physically. Charlie gets angry to the point where he fantasizes about her death, and Driver screams and pounds the wall and weeps uncontrollably. Johansson, meanwhile, insistently leans into him and cedes no ground, suggesting that one result of this terrible process is that it has affirmed her instincts and left her in a more powerful position.
And she’s in the right—that’s where this whole ugly journey into the legal system eventually leads us. Marriage Story is sneakily optimistic about the possibilities of divorce to usher in new relationships and new happiness, and it wouldn’t be possible if Nicole weren’t doing the hard thing and setting the events in motion. There’s a lesser version of this film where Nicole comes across as selfish and Charlie as the victim of her shallow impulses, but it’s not the one starring Scarlett Johansson. Her Nicole is the director of this uncoupling, and now she gets to be the one with an uncompromising vision. It may not win her a MacArthur “genius grant” or land her on the cover of Time Out New York, but it’s a triumph nonetheless.
Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vulture, Variety, and other publications.