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A "MARRIAGE STORY" about divorce ... and about as much fun to watch

Despite its title, “Marriage Story” is not about marriage. Rather, it concerns a divorce -- and it’s about as much fun to watch.

Which is not to say the film is bad.

On the contrary: Nominated for six Oscars -- including Best Actor, Actress and Picture -- “Marriage Story” boasts terrific performances and a brutal, realistic look at the collapse of an apparently decent marriage.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play Charlie and Nicole Barber, who work together in the New York theater scene (he as director, she as his star) while also raising their son, who’s around seven.

Though the Barbers seem successful, Nicole wants out -- feeling oppressed and overshadowed. She claims her husband is self-absorbed, that everything in their relationship has to feed his goals -- though this isn’t very clear from the Charlie we see during the film.

Indeed, the story begins with both partners reading an impressive list of what they like best about each other -- something their therapist asked them to do. This winsome opening -- which is reemphasized at the end -- makes it pure agony to watch them later tear each other apart, as divorce proceedings get nastier and nastier. In this way, “Marriage” cuts against the grain of most mainstream movies, which generally suggest that even couples who can’t get along will eventually figure out how to … well, get along.

Instead, as Charlie’s attorney states so powerfully, “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”

That pretty much describes the middle 90 minutes of this film; its greatest strength lies in showing how divorce feels like biting off more than you can chew -- especially as small flubs and confidences from the past are suddenly wielded like blunt instruments by the other spouse.

This really hurts.

Driver is sensational -- his best performance yet. Ditto Johansson. And for all the misery, I was amazed how much the film livened up during the lawyer scenes, starring an Oscar-nominated Laura Dern (as Nicole’s) along with Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as Charlie’s. Alda is practically the best thing in this film, while Dern’s Nora comes across as the one who really deserves accusations of ruthless narcissism -- much more than Charlie!

Featuring what must surely be the most depressing Halloween scene ever filmed, “Story” is often shattering. It’s impossible to accept what Nora claims -- namely, that Nicole’s decision constitutes “an act of hope.”

The film certainly arrives at a peaceful stasis by the end -- and this appears to have provided sufficient closure for most viewers. But from my admittedly more romantic and traditional perspective, this final entente only confirms that the Barbers could have worked it out.

Which may be the saddest part of all.

* * * (out of four)

“Marriage Story,”

written & directed by Noah Baumbach

Run time: 137 min.

Rated R for sex-talk and language

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