The beginning of Charlie and Nicole’s separation is surprisingly civil, and I say surprisingly because my parent’s own divorce was nothing short of WWIII. That is until Nicole goes to Los Angeles to work on a television pilot and gets roped into visiting an excellent divorce lawyer, Norah Fanshaw, played perfectly by Laura Dern. Originally the couple had decided that they didn’t want to use lawyers, but Norah scares Nicole into thinking that Charlie will apply for sole custody of Henry. At this point, things start to get nasty, as Charlie is served papers by Nicole’s sister, Cassie (Merrit Wever). Charlie has to travel back and forth between New York and Los Angeles to keep partial custody of Henry. He also lawyers up himself, first with a slimy divorce attorney, Jay, played by a top-form Ray Liotta. When Charlie feels like Jay is taking things too far in the digs he’s making at Nicole. He meets with veteran attorney Bert Spitz, an easy-going old man who wants to make the least waves possible played by Alan Alda. Unfortunately, when Charlie and Bert are faced with Nora, Charlie realizes he will have to go with Jay and his team of sharks to even the playing field.
During the divorce proceedings, both Charlie and Nicole go through extreme changes, while still somewhere holding onto the love for each other that just couldn’t work. There are fights with holes punched in walls, visits from family evaluators, personal and professional failures, and overall a lot of heartbreak. The thing that is refreshing about the portrayal of divorce in Marriage Story is that neither parent/spouse is portrayed as a villain or the one who is most at fault. We see Charlie’s and Nicole’s imperfections in equal measure. There is more blame if any is to be had, on the lawyers who blew what the former couple wanted to be a relatively simple process way out of proportion.
“…if anyone could do a love story centered in divorce, it’s him.”
The most important thing in Marriage Story really isn’t the divorce itself. It’s Charlie and Nicole as people on their own individual journeys through one of the hardest things a person can ever go through. It’s a beautiful character piece that revels in its protagonists’ quirks and tics. It shows that a divorce doesn’t always have to be an all-out war and that sometimes once on the other side, a friendship and amicable co-parentage can still exist. Baumbach stated that the film is a love story, which if anyone could do a love story centered in divorce, it’s him. His always excellent writing is extremely sentimental and delicate while also being hilarious and devastating in this instance. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssen give two of the best performances of the year in Marriage Story, and I will be shocked if both don’t receive Oscar nominations. It’s also refreshing to see both actors outside of Disney-adjacent fare, playing real people with real problems.
It’s almost impossible for me to convey how much this film touched my heart, being a child of divorce, and secondly, as being a rabid Baumbach fan. If you are either or both of these, you will love Marriage Story as much as I did. I certainly recommend watching it before Awards season, or for any time you want to laugh and cry a lot in a two-hour timespan.
Marriage Story screened at the 2019 New York Film Festival.