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In ‘Marriage Story,’ a couple divorces with humor and wrenching pain

Stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver seem to echo director Noah Baumbach’s own breakup with Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are divorcing in “Marriage Story.”
Netflix

When the dashing, millennial couple Charlie and Nicole split up and divorce proceedings are initiated, they’re confident they can keep things amicable.

They’re more evolved than their parents. They won’t require attorneys to work out child-custody arrangements. They’re not going to fight over who gets the living room sofa. It’s not as if either of them is filled with bitterness or regret or long-simmering resentments.

As you might imagine, these intentions do not age well.

“Marriage Story” writer-director Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Frances Ha,” “The Meyerowitz Stories”) is a maestro of smart, searing, incisive and character-driven comedy/dramas, and he mines that same territory in a film with clear parallels to his real-life relationship with his ex-wife, the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Like Baumbach, Adam Driver’s Charlie is a brilliant and celebrated director (though Charlie’s medium is the stage).

Like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole comes from a showbiz family and starred in a hugely popular, raunchy teen comedy.

Baumbach and Leigh had a son together. Charlie and Nicole have a son together.

“Marriage Story” begins with back-to-back montages — one through Charlie’s prism, one through Nicole’s — in which each describe what they love about one another. We see snippets of home Monopoly games and gift-giving moments, tender exchanges and daily rituals.

But these love letters aren’t a celebration of a healthy, thriving union. Charlie and Nicole have been asked to write down their positive feelings about one another at the behest of a mediation counselor who specializes in guiding splintered couples through the break-up process.

We’re not witnessing the beginning of the beginning. This is the beginning of the end.

When the Hollywood-raised Nicole was barely out of her teens, she gave up her career as a promising movie actress to live with Charlie in New York and star in his theater company’s productions.

For close to a decade, Charlie and Nicole have enjoyed an idyllic relationship, suitable for framing. (Literally. In one scene, we catch a glimpse of framed print of an article about Charlie and Nicole.)

The reality of their dynamic is more complicated and has been troublesome from the start.

Charlie is a narcissist and master manipulator who has always considered Nicole to be a supporting player in Charlie’s Life Story. He paints himself as a victim and wallows in self-pity when Nicole finally asserts herself and leaves him.

Not that Nicole is a saint. As the divorce becomes more contentious, Nicole is just as shameless as Charlie when it comes to using their 8-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) as a pawn.

Laura Dern, looking like she just walked off the set of “Big Little Lies,” kills as Nicole’s high-priced divorce attorney. Ray Liotta is equally fantastic as an L.A. shark who explains the brutal financial realities of a divorce to Charlie.

Some scenes are spot-on and relatable. Others, e.g., a forced, over-the-top sequence in which Nicole and her sister (Merritt Weaver) and mom (Julie Hagerty) rehearse serving Charlie with divorce papers, fall flat. Baumbach’s depiction of Nicole’s return to television is superficially cynical, and cruelly mocking of just about everyone involved at any level of TV production.

The funnier moments in “Marriage Story” are reminiscent of 1970s/1980s Woody Allen, whereas the harsher, gut-wrenching confrontational scenes are more Ingmar Bergman-esque, giving Driver and Johansson the opportunity to flex their Oscar muscles.

Late in the story, we actually get a couple of musical numbers — one silly and frothy but with melancholic undertones, one clearly designed to wrench our hearts right out of our chests.

I’m not buying every chapter of this “Marriage Story,” but there’s enough material here to warrant a look.