The Hegelian dialectic is a concept that sometimes gives people trouble (it is also a concept that Hegel did not devise and openly derided, at least its typical formulation), but it's not that hard to understand. There exists a condition; a thesis. The existence of this condition necessarily triggers its opposite reaction; an antithesis. The tension between thesis and antithesis can only be resolved by a new condition that draws from them both; a synthesis.

The reason for bringing this up in a review of Marriage Story? Because, with this film, we find ourselves officially and unmistakably in a third phase in the career of writer-director Noah Baumbach, after his last film, 2017's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) strongly suggested that might be a possibility. And this third phase works perfectly as a synthesis of the first two. Thesis: austere, vicious films, born out of the crucible of the 1990s American independent film scene, in which unlikable characters are studied with a clinical fascination that asks us to understand them as flawed humans, but certainly does not expect there's any significant possibility that we'll enjoy spending time in their company. Antithesis: warm, generous comedies, co-written with his girlfriend Greta Gerwig, that celebrate the sloppiness of eager youth. Synthesis: cautiously warm, tender-hearted character dramas about broken and prickly people who are hard to like, though we are given ample room to sympathise with them.

Marriage Story is every inch the last of these: it is the depiction of a married couple going through the gruesome process of an acrimonious divorce, and out of its list of successes, two of the big ones are that A) it makes us understand exactly how much it costs both halves of the couple to give up this part of their lives, and gives us all the room in the world to feel sorry for them and share their frustration at how shitty the situation is; and B) it makes it extremely clear why somebody would find it intolerable to still be married to this person. It comes from close observation: Baumbach was both the child of a divorced couple (memorialised in his lacerating 2005 feature The Squid and the Whale) and has gone through an acrimonious divorce of his own, from Jennifer Jason Leigh (precipitated in part by his affair with Gerwig, when the three were all involved with the creation of the director's 2010 Greenberg). And it feels like it comes from close observation: there is not here the generic stuff of a melodramatically failing marriage, but a very detailed procedural about all of the shit, both bureaucratic and emotional, that comes up over the course of getting divorced.

Plotwise, this is quite simple. New Yorkers Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson), an actor, and Charlie Barber (Adam Driver), a theater director, have been struggling for a while, and recent developments in Nicole's career have pushed things to the brink: she's been given the chance to shoot a pilot back in her hometown of Los Angeles, which he despises, and they've agreed to legally separate while she takes their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) to the west coast. Here, she meets with divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), who gives her the nudge she needs to formally file for divorce. Owing to a set of legal rules that only get explained to us and the characters one at a time, this triggers a bottomless well of Kafkaesque paper-shuffling that serves to put both Barbers all the way on edge, where the unstated resentments that evolved over their marriage start to have plenty of opportunities to get stated.

It's a marvelous trick how the film manages to seem awful without having a single villain. Nora manipulates Nicole, no doubt - Dern's exquisite performance makes that perfectly clear - but it's not in a wicked greedy lawyer way, but in the fashion of a woman sensing that another woman needs encouragement to make a hard, necessary decision. It's nobody's fault that the rules work they way they do, and much of the tragedy within Marriage Story comes because both Nicole and Charlie are too decent and caring to be calculating and cynical, which is why they (especially Charlie) keep bumbling their way into springing various legal traps that lay out a whole new field of traps. It is a very clear depiction of the process by which two people are maneuvered into snarling at each other like animals by irresistible forces, when the thing they both want above all is to remain supportive and respectful of each other. It is a rigorous character study and legal anti-thriller that has been precisely assembled to within an inch of its life.

It is also a film that is considerably less than the sum of its parts. Divorce dramas were never common, and they're less common now than they used to be; but I still can't figure out what Marriage Story adds to the model of its most transparently obvious inspiration, Ingmar Bergman's imposing 1973 TV miniseries Scenes from a Marriage (not just the finest of all filmed depictions of divorce, but the finest one I can possibly imagine ever being made). And even if divorce pictures are rare, it's been only four years since Carol, whose script has the magnificent line "So that's the deal. I won't, I cannot negotiate anymore. You take it or leave it. But if you leave it, we go to court. And if we go to court, it'll get ugly. And we're not ugly people, Harge", which says in just two shots everything that Marriage Story says in 136 minutes.

To be fair, though, Marriage Story has a hell of a lot of good individual parts. It starts with its very best, a pair of montages as first Charlie, then Nicole recite all of the things that they love best about each other, as a shaky handheld camera (the only one in the film) captures quick little beats of their life, and Randy Newman's score plays sweetly and hopefully across the soundtrack. We learn in short order that this is an assignment given to them by their couple's counselor, and that it hasn't gone well, but there's not a trace of snarky irony; it is devastating to hear and see the evidence that this was a loving marriage before it wasn't, as that gives us all the evidence we'll need to understand how much this all rips the life out of the protagonists. From there on, the film gives us a lot of well-built scenes of characters getting in over their heads emotionally, whirling words around in long, talky attempts to figure out what's going on in their heads (Johansson gets a doozy of a monologue in a curious, merciless long take, and some really amazing reaction shots where smiles painfully etch their way across half of her mouth and then die), and just generally being miserable; both leads are exhausting to watch in the best way as they take on more and more weight, anger, and loss, and they have a fight scene that instantly lands itself a spot in the Movie Arguments Hall of Fame.

On the other hand, a whole lot of well-built scenes (and at least a couple of straining, contrived ones) isn't quite the same as a single well-built movie, and by the time it's over, Marriage Story doesn't seem to have actually, like, done anything (I am aware that it has clearly done a whole lot for a whole lot of people. Even so). Other than a generally smart approach to editing that uses fast cutting judiciously to showcase characters spinning out of control, it doesn't feel like choices went into the shaping of this material. It's a very blobby movie - the blobs are good! But for all the pleasure in watching Laura Dern barnstorm through a monologue about the double standard, I can't for the life of me understand why that monologue is in this movie, except as a clumsy way for Baumbach to extend one of several olive branches to Leigh; it's certainly not because of any palpable dramatic yield. Nor can I figure out why Charlie waffles between two attorneys played by Ray Liotta and Alan Alda in very tiny roles, when it would be just as easy to combine them and give either one an actual decent-sized role.

And to be frank, I find it mildly suffocating how impeccable the movie is. It spends distinctly more of its screen-time with Charlie, but otherwise works as hard as it possibly can to keep things balanced between the characters, which is a noble impulse, but it comes off a bit mechanical, especially in a pair of narratively useless scenes near the end where the two leads each sing a song from the musical Company (which is such a lazy, obvious reference in a film about divorce that it made me slightly furious, especially since it's being used to cheaply give the film an unearned emotional moment for Charlie; Baumbach's refusal to provide this context also gives the whole thing a very smug "all of us cosmopolitan intellectuals recognise Sondheim, yes? Clever, yes?" vibe that made me slightly more furious still), where it almost feels like you can sense the filmmakers counting frames. And for all that the film is about unpleasant emotions wrenching their way into the daylight, it feels very worked-out, very rehearsed; only Driver's rawness keeps several moments feeling authentic at all, rather than just a very admirable but very lifeless re-enactment of stress and trauma. It is, I think, because this is Third-Period Baumbach, more concerned with nicely depicting characters rather than slicing into them and letting us wallow in the reek of their guts; because it refuses to be actually nasty, it ends up feeling more like a simulation of misery than a true portrayal of it. Compared to Scenes from a Marriage, or Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, or the second half of Before Midnight, this doesn't feel visceral, doesn't feel like we're reeling on the edge of an abyss as howling, ice-cold wind races out of it. It feels very tidy, and for a film that is specifically about an uncontrollable, upsetting mess spinning out of control, that's not a great feeling.