Netflix's Heartbreaking Divorce Drama 'Marriage Story' Is Also Surprisingly Funny

Adam Driver is the star of Noah Baumbach’s brilliant comedy-drama and also ‘The Report,’ a crusading thriller on Amazon Prime

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story."
Wilson Webb/Netflix

What is it that makes Adam Driver so damned watchable? The 36-year-old stars in two radically different new films — and he’s equally compelling in both.

Yet I didn’t come out of either “Marriage Story” or “The Report” thinking Driver is going to be the next De Niro or Day-Lewis. No matter which character he plays (and this includes his most famous roles, like Kylo Ren in the “Star Wars” franchise and Lena Dunham’s roguish boyfriend in “Girls”), he’s always kind of just being “Adam Driver”: that same mess of dark matte hair, those same restrained emotions, that same unusual-looking face. He’s a remarkably unshowy actor with the happy knack — OK, skill — of being able to completely inhabit a character without ever actually changing his physical appearance.

I just did a Driver double bill of “The Report” and “Marriage Story” — both are out now, on Amazon Prime and Netflix, respectively — and was completely blown away by both films. I could only recommend them more if they each came with a free puppy.

“Marriage Story” is funny, sad, tragic, comic (if only there were a word to combine those emotions) and, ultimately, rather heartbreaking. It is also a film so theatrical — niche joke alert! — that I kept expecting the ceiling to come crashing down as I watched it at my local cinema.

It’s the latest from writer-director Noah Baumbach — and it immediately had me cursing myself for neglecting his most recent oeuvre (shamefully, the last film of his I saw was the excellent “Greenberg” in 2010 — an error I swiftly intend to rectify).

Here, Baumbach combines a bit of the divorce drama “Kramer vs. Kramer” (including an annoying kid who, frankly, I would be fighting to not get custody of) with a bit of the brilliant scene in “When Harry Met Sally…” when Billy Crystal warns couple Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby that one day they’ll be arguing over an $8 dish that will cost “$1,000 in phone calls to the legal firm That’s Mine, This is Yours.”

Best of all are the group of satellite characters orbiting the worlds of theater director Charlie (Driver) and actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), whose marriage has just ended.

The most chilling sentence I ever heard in my life was when a counselor advised me that divorcing with children would be like “heart surgery without anesthetic.” (Funnily enough, the second-most chilling sentence came shortly after when she revealed how much she charged per hour.) That’s a line borne out by Charlie and Nicole’s experience, as what starts off as an amicable divorce soon deteriorates into arguments about (metaphorical) wagon wheel tables.

It’s no secret that about six years ago Baumbach got divorced from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, or that they had a young son. He has also famously said that he “always viewed life as material for a movie.” So, you don’t need to be Dr. Ruth to figure out that some of his most personal moments helped inspire this strangely inspirational tale. In doing so, he has created a spellbinding film that I would have happily watched unfold over an entire season on Netflix.

Charlie and Nicole are the straight guys in their own drama, surrounded by a succession of increasingly funny characters — like Nicole’s mom and sister (Julie Hagerty — yes, Julie Hagerty from “Airplane!” — and Merritt Wever from “Unbelievable”), who both have great relationships with Charlie and are struggling to remember whose side they are on (because, like with all the best sports, divorce demands that you pick a “team”). Then there are ballbusting rival lawyers Nora and Jay, deliciously played by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta — who both seem to be having far too much fun to justify picking up a paycheck. 

“Marriage Story” is one of the most powerful, moving films you will see in 2019. Among its many joys, it has a beautifully lyrical framing device that justifies that seemingly counterintuitive title. I don’t think it quite qualifies it as perfect viewing material for couples on a first date, but maybe it can create a new trend: A “last date” movie that couples see together before deciding whether they definitely want to separate.

The Report’: Dianne Feinstein like you've never seen her before

If Driver is a rather self-obsessed creative type in “Marriage Story,” he’s a work-obsessed wonk determined to speak truth to power in “The Report.” And while Baumbach’s film is about two broken hearts, writer-director Scott Z. Burns’ immersive thriller is a crusading drama that proudly wears its heart on its sleeve.

Adam Driver as Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones in “The Report.”
Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios

It’s based on a 7,000-page Senate Select Committee on Intelligence study — wait, come back! — into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program after the agency became the “tip of the spear” in the fight against Al-Qaida following the 9/11 attack.

The film masterfully condenses into two hours the seven years Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones (Driver) dedicated to uncovering the truth about the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques (aka torture) and his efforts to get the full report published. It’s a battle that still continues today, and Burns’ film is very much part of that fight.

The film harkens back a bygone, distant age when it was possible to achieve bipartisan support on certain issues. Anyone else remember 2014? In this instance, it was senators like long-standing Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein and GOP Senator John McCain (the late Republican only appears here in news footage, although the real Daniel Jones has acknowledged his role he played in halting the CIA’s methods).

Annette Bening and Adam Driver as Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senate investigator Daniel J. Jones in “The Report.”
Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon Studios

I don’t know which meeting would have been funnier to attend: the one where Feinstein was first told she was being played by Annette Bening; or the one when someone suggested to the still-glamorous 61-year-old actress that she would be perfect to play the now 86-year-old Californian legislator. Let’s just say that Bening captures the feisty spirit and colorful jackets of the senator without ever likely to be mistaken for her.

The biggest artistic challenge in making this film is encapsulated in the line Jones says to his colleagues as they’re embarking on their CIA study: “We have the files, their emails and cables, their memos. We have to use their own communications to tell the story.” How do you create a gripping thriller out of an office drama in which the most active thing your hero does is type words into a search engine or sit in meetings with his senator boss (proving that actors sometimes also get to do desk jobs)?

Burns solves that problem by chronologically dramatizing the events being described in the classified CIA documents as Jones uncovers them. As well as myriad disturbing torture scenes in off-the-books CIA locations (you may want to skip the popcorn during the rectal rehydration), there’s an especially chilling moment when the potential torture methods are first unveiled as “the Triple D method”: debility, dependency, dread. I won’t spoil anything about the two U.S. Air Force psychologists behind the torture program, suffice to say that critics used to refer to them as the “Mormon mafia” — a seemingly well-earned nickname as they pocketed a reported $80 million for their war efforts.

After the disappointment of Burns’ previous work as scriptwriter — “The Laundromat,” also on Netflix — there is so much more to admire in “The Report.” This is a taut and tense drama that serves as a necessary counterpart to tub-thumping flicks about the CIA like “Zero Dark Thirty.” And given that Driver felt compelled to join the U.S. Marines after 9/11, driven by a sense of patriotism, one can only assume similar motives made him enlist in this project. Mr. Driver, thank you for your service to liberal cinema.

The only question now is whether Driver and Bening might consider playing Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi in a few years’ time. Call it a sequel of sorts: “The Quid Pro Quo Schmo.”