There have been films about marriages falling apart before. You could understand that a film like Marriage Story would be expected to deliver a lot in order to separate itself from the other divorce films. It will surprise you.
The film begins on the two in the marriage: Charlie and Nicole Barber. Charlie is a successful theatre producer in New York and Nicole is a former teen actress originally from California who’s part of his production and has helped her career as an adult actress. We see images of Nicole and we hear Charlie’s voice of what he loves best about Nicole. We see images of Charlie and we hear from Nicole what she loves best about Charlie. We then see Charlie and Nicole sitting in the office of a marriage mediator. What we heard are the written essays both were requested by the mediator to write of each other. The mediator requests Nicole to read first, but she’s too embarrassed and they forego the counselling.
The marriage troubles appear to have happened when Nicole was offered a starring role in a Hollywood television production. After she left the New York production of Charlie’s, Nicole moved back temporarily into her mother’s house taking their 8-year-old son Henry with them. Charlie chose to stay in New York as his play is moving to Broadway. They want the split to be amicable and to forego lawyers. However right after shooting, one of her castmates recommended a family lawyer she had for her ow divorce.
Her name is Nora and she is known to have experience in family situations, especially those in showbiz. Right from the start, Nora appears ready to deal with Nicole’s case, even before she hears it. Nicole does state her case. She tells of how she feels neglected by him and he constantly rejects her ideas and desires. She also suspects him having an affair with the stage manager of the theatre company.
Charlie goes to Los Angeles with the intention of visiting Nicole’s family. Nicole’s family is very affectionate to Charlie, but Nicole wants them kept out of it since this divorce is happening. The family try to make like it’s a normal visit until Charlie is served the divorce papers. Charlie first meets with Jay Marotta in Los Angeles who’s known to be an aggressive lawyer who fights dirty. Charlie declines hiring him, but he receives a phone call from Nora saying he needs to find a lawyer or risk losing custody of Henry. It’s on his return flight he finds a lawyer who’s not one Nicole previously consulted.
His name is Bert Spitz and he’s retired from family law and favors a civil approach to handling divorce. However Bert does make it clear there are some thing Bert will need to do to win custody of Henry such as move to Los Angeles. Charlie finds an apartment and remodels it to look modern. However he still has to fly back to New York frequently to work on his show. Charlie doesn’t want this to be a dirty court show so he gets Bert to arrange a meeting between the two of them, Nicole and Nora. From the start, Nora is the one in control as she brings up Nicole claim of him not being warm to her ambitions and revealing Henry prefers to stay with his mother instead of fly between the two cities. A frustrated Bert recommends Charlie move to Los Angeles completely.
A frustrated Charlie has had it. He fires Bert. During his Broadway run, he wins a lucrative Fellowship Grant. The first payout is enough to buy Jay on retainer. The case then moves to court. A confident Nora reassures Nicole that everything will be for her success, until she sees Jay coming to the court office. She knows it will get ugly. And it does get ugly in the court as Nora tries to portray Charlie as a bad person with past infidelity and emotional distance and Jay tries to portray Nicole as a bad person by making her wine drinking look like alcoholism and a criminal for hacking Charlie’s emails.
This whole lawyer vs. lawyer action frustrates both Nicole and Charlie. They act in a friendly way, especially around Henry. They don’t want this divorce to be a burden to Henry but he makes it obvious the back and forth is an annoyance to him. They hope a private discussion without either lawyer present will lead to a better resolve to the situation. Instead it starts as friendly and then turns into a heated argument. So heated, it a case Nicole claims he has gotten too involved with himself and an angry Charlie wishes she would die. However it’s Charlie realizing what he said that he breaks down, with Nicole comforting him.
The divorce drama isn’t over. Charlie is to have nightly visits with Henry where he is monitored by an expert evaluator. The visit appears to go well until Charlie shows both Henry and evaluator a trick he does with his carpenters knife in front of castmates. The trick failed and it left a long cut on his arm. The court process ends as both agree to relax their demands. At a family party with Nora as guest, Nora reveals the 50/50 agreement is actually 55/45 in her favor with terms Nicole didn’t want. At a party with his Broadway castmates, they console Charlie and he sings a song which seems to reflect his feelings of defeat.
One year passes. Charlie’s play has a successful year-long run and Nicole was nominated for an Emmy for directing. She also has a new boyfriend, possibly the boy she met at a party a year earlier. It’s on the day of Halloween Party. Nicole’s family is excited to see Charlie and Charlie tells them all he accepted residency to spend more time around Henry. Just before Charlie is about to take Henry to the party, he notices Henry trying to read something written on paper. Charlie tries to read it, but realizes it’s what Nicole wrote about Charlie in preparation with meeting with the mediator over a year ago. Charlie reads it as Nicole just enters in, and is in tears. At the end of the party, Nicole notices Henry tired on Charlie’s shoulder. Nicole agrees to let Charlie have him for the night, even though it’s her night with him.
There have been films about marriages falling apart and even films about actual divorce battles. Some will remember 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. That film won the Oscar for Best Picture and even highlighted a touchy topic about children caught in the middle of their parents’ divorces. This film is unique as this is about a divorce and it’s a divorce of a showbiz couple with differing career paths whose ambitions can be best met thousands of miles apart. The thing about this film is that anyone who’s been married, been in a long-term relationship, or are even going through divorce themselves can see certain instances in the Barber story that mirror their own. Maybe it’s at the beginning where Charlie’s and Nicole’s essays reflect one’s pre-divorce feelings towards their spouse. Maybe it’s the nasty court battles. Maybe it’s those child custody situations. Maybe it’s even those moments where instead of keeping it all together, they just let it out and just vent out their hostile frustrations towards them. I’m sure one can see their own situation mirrored in this film.
The film does a very good, very thorough, if not completely thorough, look at the divorce of the Barbers. The film starts with the two talking of what wins them to the other. It progresses when we learn of their past career moments, present career situations and obvious future goals. It leads into how the split gets to the point a divorce is necessary and how lawyer involvement is needed. It gets to the legal preparation and even how one tried to prepare himself to win a custody battle. It even gets to moments where both bring out the worst in each other. Then there’s the two aftermaths: the first aftermath being right after the divorce and the second being much later with the calm after the storm. The film is very good at showing how the ambitions of the two, whom both describe the other as ‘a competitive person’ at the beginning, cause the friction. The film is good at showing how one state’s divorce laws conflict with another’s laws. The film is good at showing how divorce battles interfere with their child’s life. The film is also creative as it shows the first part of the aftermath of the court battle with a musical note. Nicole, her mother and sister perform a song from a Stephen Sondheim musical at a post-trial celebration party while Charlie sings a song from a Stephen Sondheim musical at a New York return party about heartbreak. It fits the film and story perfectly.
I feel the biggest focus of the film is not just the marriage falling apart, but of the involvement of lawyers. One of Jay’s assistants said: ‘Criminal lawyers see the good in bad people. Divorce lawyers see the bad in good people.’ That is very true. We see it at the trial as both Nora and Jay try to vilify their client’s spouse and expose the dirt in them. Even after we heard Nicole and Charlie describe each other at the beginning as ‘a competitive person,’ we see in the court battles that their competitiveness is nothing compared to Jay and Nora. Many divorce lawyers like Jay and Nora end up being this kind of ‘cutthroat competitive.’ You can see it puts a strain on Nicole and Charlie. Sometimes you’re left to wonder if their most frustrated by the divorce proceedings or by their lawyers’ involvement. Both lawyers even showed animal-like mannerisms in the way they did their business; Nora appeared to be coming off like a snake while Jay appeared to be coming off like a bull. What can I say? It’s like my father once said “The only people that really win in a divorce are the lawyers.” Very true, Dad!
It would be interesting to compare this to Kramer vs. Kramer. One think that’s noticed is that this film is a lot more intense. One difference is Kramer focuses on a neighbor who’s in support while Nicole has more of a support system of a family. Both films are about a divorce and a custody battle. However the role of Henry in this film is not as dimension as that of the role of Billy in Kramer. Both boys have similar bowl-cuts, but Billy was the bigger role. Actually the bigger roles in this film were the lawyers. There was some ‘lawyer moments’ in Kramer, but not as much. I think that’s the thing with this film is that it’s not just about a divorce but about lawyer interference too.
Interesting note is that Scarlett has been married once and has a daughter from that marriage to Ryan Reynolds. Adam Driver is currently married and has a child. Noah Baumbach is currently married to Greta Gerwig but was married to Jennifer Jason Leigh for some time before and fathered a child through her. Sometimes it’s tempting to think this is about that marriage, especially when Jennifer, like Nicole, was a teen movie star with her breakthrough coming in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Noah will admit it’s partially about that, but it’s about other divorces too like his own parents and through people he worked with. He even interviewed lawyers, judges and mediators. In case you’re wondering, Jennifer did see it and she’s cool with it. That bit about Nicole having directorial pursuits, I think that’s more like Gerwig than Leigh.
This has to be the best film ever made by Noah Baumbach. Up until now, I felt his best work was The Squid And The Whale which ironically is what it’s like being a teen during a divorce, and was semi-autobiographical. This film he directs and writes really appears to be a mirror on what’s happening in a lot of people’s marriages today. It reminds me of what won people to certain independent films of the late-1980’s and early 1990’s. Those films consisted of actors playing regular people who won audiences over by being reflections of themselves. This film does that. Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver were also excellent in their parts. There were times when they had to be their own individual character and then times to be a character that was part of a couple. Both did an excellent job of making their characters work. Laura Dern was hateably-excellent as the divorce lawyer that was appeared more interested in winning for her than her client and was going to manipulate her way into getting it. Julie Hagerty was also very good as the mother trying to be supportive for Nicole but still having high regards for Charlie. Azhy Robertson was also very good as Henry, but his role lacked the dimension and the screen time of that of Billy Kramer. I feel the role didn’t touch on the frustrations of the child that well.
Marriage Story is the story of two people in the arts whose marriage falls apart. However what they go through is what one can see mirrored in their own lives or what they see happening to couples close to them or what one experienced in their own divorce. That’s the film’s best quality.