We open on voiceover narration; a couple reading what they have written about one another. What I love about Nicole: her bravery as a performer, her playfulness as a mother, her little quirks that may be annoying but that you love anyway, her competitiveness. What I love about Charlie: his brilliance as a director, his love for the mundaneness of fatherhood, his effortless style, his competitiveness. We come to reality to see these are exercises with a couples counselor facilitated to mediate the couple in their impending separation and divorce. What follows is a complex and moving tale that looks at the struggle between breaking up as a couple but staying together as a family, and all the pain and drama that come along with that. This is Noah Baumbach’s latest film “Marriage Story.”
Netflix’s “Marriage Story” is one of the biggest titles of this award’s season and one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. It’s being praised for its writing, score, editing, and performances, specifically those of its lead stars, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. It’s also a film with some potential brewing controversy. People have been comparing the plot of the film to that of Baumbach’s real-life divorce to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, due to their professions being eerily similar to the couple in the film and other details. There is also discussion as to whether the film favors the male character over the female counterpart, in both screen time and overall portrayal, rather than being an equal story told from both sides of the argument.
As someone who has seen the film and sat with it for a bit, I have many thoughts on these claims and ideas. The short answer: Yes, the character of Charlie is given more screen time; however, I don’t think that makes the film out to be in favor of him, nor does it paint the character of Nicole in a negative light. I don’t think the focus on Charlie’s character overall hinders or diminishes the film in any way. I’m going to delve into some plot spoilers, but I feel that is necessary to discuss and defend the film properly.
“Marriage Story” begins with the couple not fully separated. They’re still working together on their play at their theater company, which will soon be moving to Broadway (without Nicole). Charlie is sleeping on the couch, and Nicole’s impending move to LA to film a television pilot lingers in the air. They are cold and short towards each other, but both appear to be holding on by a thread to what little they have left of their familiarity and comfort with one another.
We then follow Nicole to Los Angeles – the film cleverly focuses on her for some time. We see her everyday life with her work, son, and family. We get to see the type of life she wants now that she is leaving her marriage and understanding the type of freedom and possibilities she now has. This culminates in her first meeting with her new lawyer, Nora (played deliciously by Laura Dern). In a continuous long take, we see Nicole delve into the entire saga of the relationship and why she ultimately wants out. She feels like she has fully lost who she was before Charlie, that she was never able to form her own opinions and traits outside of her relationship, that she lost her identity to someone who did not fully see her. We completely understand her and where she’s coming from, and we’re able to go into the actual divorce knowing that it’s ultimately what is best for her and we can form opinions on Charlie’s flaws and selfishness.
The rest of the film follows their divorce proceedings, specifically the custody battle for their son, as Nicole wishes to move to LA completely while Charlie is firm in his belief that they are a New York family. We go back and forth between the two of them, but it’s clear that focus on Charlie and his viewpoint on the proceedings become more prevalent as the film goes on. Through every decision Nicole makes (even if told from Charlie’s point of view), we can completely understand where she’s coming from, or at least I did. It makes total sense that she would want to move back to California where she was born and raised, where her family is, where better work opportunities and more spacious housing are available.
Nicole never comes across as the bitch ex-wife trying to take her child away from his father. Charlie sometimes doesn’t see or understand that, but the film never makes Nicole out to be the villain. She’s tired of being the one who always made sacrifices for the well-being of their son and she feels that it’s now Charlie’s turn, even if they are no longer together.
If anything, Charlie is the one who comes across as more unlikable, regardless if the film is being told slightly more from his point of view. He only thinks about himself and what he wants for his son, rather than what might be best for him in the long run. He comes across as stubborn and set in his ways in regards to his comfortable life being upended by potentially moving across the country. However, this never makes Charlie an unwatchable character. A common theme in Baumbach’s films is highlighting people’s flaws and moments of unlikability, which I appreciate because it allows his characters to feel more real and their situations to have more weight to them because it never feels overwritten for dramatics sake.
The real theme of the film isn’t necessarily divorce and the pain that comes with breaking up (although that’s still a major component), but rather, what happens when two people break up and one person gets everything they wanted and is much happier and better off while the other person has to come to terms with that. While Nicole is an interesting and well-written character, it’s much more interesting to follow Charlie as he attempts to navigate his feelings. Nicole gets out of the breakup and ultimate divorce with everything that she wanted and deserved; she seems happier and we, as the audience, know that she’ll be okay. Meanwhile, Charlie has to figure out that he might not always be right, that he might not always come first. He has to come to terms with what is best for his son, even if it isn’t the outcome he initially wanted.
”Marriage Story” concludes that way. Charlie takes a job offer that’ll keep him in LA for a while, allowing him to be closer to his son without constantly traveling back and forth for work. It’s not that he gave up or gave in, he just had to take some time to realize that maybe that was best, that it was time for him to make some sacrifices. The film doesn’t pity Charlie in that way and it allows the viewer to sit back and watch as he tries to figure out what’s right. He’s flawed, but he’s not a bad person – neither of them is.
If I’m being completely honest and transparent, this is probably my favorite film of the year and it emotionally affected me deeply. I find myself attracted to stories of love and love lost because I love so passionately but then, in turn, a film like this brings a fear upon my own relationship. It brings up the idea that this beautiful and cherished part of my life could become broken or taken away and that can be frightening. “Marriage Story” taps into the reality of two incredibly compatible people just no longer being able to make it work, but it also highlights the joys and specifics of loving someone. Being in love, sharing your life with someone can be messy and painful, but it also allows someone to know you better than you know yourself. The film showcases all the little details Charlie and Nicole notice and love about one another even as they are breaking up, which is an aspect that greatly touched me.
I never once felt like the potential gender imbalance hindered my love or connection to the film. Just because it focused slightly more on the male character doesn’t mean that I (a woman) could not find something to connect to, nor did I ever feel that the female character lacked any voice or agency. They both are complex, well-rounded characters regardless of the amount of screen time they have.
I love “Marriage Story;” so much so that the thought of anyone potentially tearing it down brings up my defenses and the thought of that hindering its potential awards success angers me. However, I do think the film speaks for itself and justifies how these two characters are portrayed. Noah Baumbach does claim that, while he has gone through a divorce and custody battle, he also interviewed many friends who have gone through the same thing as part of the research for the film, and he also spoke with various divorce lawyers and counselors to accurately portray the legal jargon. Now, whether he is prematurely trying to shoot down any potential negative press…I’m not sure. The lawyer’s meetings and court scenes do seem to be handled with a level of specificity and care that it’s clear much research was put in for those moments. If Jennifer Jason Leigh herself speaks out with negative opinions on the film, that’s one thing, but I think the film perfectly covers its tracks and justifies every detail of why the story is told the way it is. The idea of writing the film off for these details seems unwarranted. Baumbach creates an incredibly realistic and honest story for these two characters that could have easily been told poorly in a lesser writer’s hands. They always feel like real people going through a hard time, a story that I think anyone can relate to and get something out of.
You can follow Casey and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @CaseyLeeClark