'Marriage Story' movie still

From left, Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver star in "Marriage Story."

If you caught the pair of teaser trailers for Noah Baumbach's new film, "Marriage Story," you've essentially seen its first seven minutes pared down. The movie opens as 30-something couple Charlie and Nicole each detail via voiceover the things they love about one another over a montage of some of their merrier memories together, many of which involve their very young son, Henry.

It's an irresistibly romantic setup for a film that, despite its title and the instant chemistry of its leads, is hardly a love story. Turns out Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are listing each other's endearing qualities as an exercise mandated by their divorce counselor.

"Marriage Story" observes the next year or so as the couple struggles to maintain their son's innocence and their own sanity amid their separation, which becomes even messier when Nicole brings a relentless attorney (Laura Dern) into the mix. Factor in the considerable physical distance between the two — Charlie remains committed to his New York theatre company while Nicole's in L.A. to pursue a screen-acting career — and you have an increasingly heated situation that, if left unchecked, is destined for an explosive boil.

As you'd expect of a divorce drama, the explosion does eventually happen. But Baumbach's thoughtful, compassionate and painfully funny buildup to this denouement is what makes "Marriage Story" the best film of 2019.

The list of great Hollywood divorce dramas is surprisingly short and includes Baumbach's 2005 film "The Squid and the Whale," a story inspired by his parents' separation. This time around, the writer-director borrows from his own 2010 divorce at the risk of presenting a one-sided and perhaps haughty narrative, the main flaw with the very good yet very dated "Kramer vs. Kramer." But the leading duo is given ample room to flesh out both main characters' rights and wrongs, their regrets and their vindications, making for about as unbiased a semi-autobiography we're bound to ever get.

Driver and Johansson give the mightiest performances of their respective careers, plain and simple. Baumbach clearly knows how capable his performers are, giving each of them at least one unbroken, several-minutes-long take to really flex their chops: The camera obediently follows Johansson as Nicole spills her guts to her new lawyer, and Driver as he reconciles with his turnstile of emotions via piano-bar karaoke. Both masterfully balance misery, confusion and dry wit, and in the rare instance when just the two of them share the screen, their chemistry is palpably electric whether it radiates affection or spite or anything in between.

Baumbach has matured considerably over the span of his 25-year career, and "Marriage Story" shows just how careful he's become in his craft. Unlike his 1996 debut "Kicking and Screaming," this film never once feels indulgent or pretentious and is deftly attuned to its characters' constantly evolving, often conflicting dispositions. His efforts are bolstered by the sumptuous, 35mm cinematography of Robbie Ryan and music by storied melter of hearts Randy Newman.

Sure, it may not have much competition, but "Marriage Story" is perhaps the most perfect divorce drama ever made. Even when it's documenting the banalities of the process — one or two home visits and many a mediation — its stellar acting, razor-sharp script and audio-visual gorgeousness make for 2019's most mesmerizingly true-to-life film experience. Netflix drops it on Friday — hit play as soon as you can.

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Rating: 5/5

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John Battiston, who screened "Marriage Story" at the 2019 Middleburg Film Festival, is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at jbattiston@loudountimes.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.

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