Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Marriage Story, opens with a voiceover of Charlie (Adam Driver) explaining what he loves about his wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). With it, a montage plays of Nicole doing what Charlie says she does: She’s a playful mother, she loves to dance, and she is his favorite actress. The point of view then switches to Nicole describing what she loves about Charlie while a montage plays of him. He’s an annoyingly good father, he’s confident, and he has a clear artistic vision when he directs her. This feeling of affection quickly dissolves as the film cuts to Nicole and Charlie with a therapist, now showing the voice overs as letters they wrote to each other to mediate their divorce.
The letters not only reveal facts about the characters but also how they see one another. They each value the other’s relationship to their son, Henry (Azhy Roberston), and their artistic partnership, so how did they get to this point?
Nicole, a Los Angeles native and promising young actress, meets Charlie at an avant-garde theater performance nine years prior and they immediately fall in love. She moves to Brooklyn, abandoning her Hollywood career, and becomes his muse at his theater company. They work together successfully for years until one day, Nicole decides to leave.
Everyone in their theater company is confused as to why Nicole filed for divorce and decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue a television pilot, including Charlie. Despite her and Charlie’s tense interactions, admiration and respect shine through.
Nevertheless, Nicole moves back to her childhood home with Henry and enrolls him in a school in California. A colleague of hers suggests she hire a divorce lawyer, despite Nicole and Charlie previously agreeing on mediating their separation without legal counsel. Nicole eventually meets with an expensive, high-power divorce attorney, Nora (Laura Dern). She quickly becomes comfortable with Nora, sharing how she felt Charlie overpowered her in their time together. Her decision to leave was not brash, but rather a reaction to years of building resentment. He didn’t allow her to direct projects or move the family to California temporarily, even when she expressed her desire to do so. She felt she didn’t have any identity or space for herself. With the combination of Nora’s influence and Nicole’s reflection on her marriage, it becomes clear the only answer is divorce.
What follows is a heartbreaking legal and emotional disintegration of Nicole and Charlie’s relationship. Baumbach strikes a unique balance between the legalities of separation and the awkwardness of detangling from a long-term relationship. It’s rare that a film addresses how expensive and difficult it is to even obtain a divorce, particularly when there’s a custody battle. Nicole’s decision to hire an attorney and file for divorce in California makes it difficult for Charlie to be fully engaged with the proceedings. His play, which won the MaCarthur Grant, is debuting on Broadway and demands his attention. However, he legally has to have a lawyer in California and be there as much as possible to prove his commitment to his son.
The film focuses primarily on Nicole in the first half, while Charlie’s point of view takes over in the second. The switch in perspective makes it clear that both characters are flawed, confused, and heartbroken. Their separation is a product of years of neglect by Charlie but made more difficult by the way Nicole chose to proceed. Charlie is forced to hire his own high-powered and overpriced attorney, Jay (Ray Liotta). Nora and Jay’s involvement leads to Charlie and Nicole completely losing control of the proceedings—they no longer represent themselves or their own interests.
It may seem odd that a movie called Marriage Story is so focused on the divorce of the two main characters. However, it’s appropriate considering what the characters are reflecting on and grieving over the loss of a once great relationship. It’s a story with no clear villain or answer as to how Nicole and Charlie got to such a bitter end to their marriage. What Marriage Story does have is powerful performances and, in the end, overflowing compassion for a flawed relationship with flawed people.