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‘Marriage Story’ Is a Horror Movie About the Divorce-Industrial Complex

In Noah Baumbach’s acclaimed drama, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson discover that divorce is designed to make you hate the one you loved

It would be easier if Charlie and Nicole, the married couple splitting up in Marriage Story, didn’t love each other anymore. Years ago, before Louis C.K. finally owned up to the reprehensible things he’d done, he would talk about his divorce — and why he hated it when people treated it like a funeral. “Divorce is always good news,” he’d say. “I know that sounds weird, but it’s true, because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce. That would be sad. If two people were married and they just had a great thing and then they got divorced, that would be really sad. But that has happened zero times.” 

The couple in Noah Baumbach’s beautiful new movie, however, might be an exception. Charlie and Nicole have reached an impasse, and Nicole decides she wants to move on, but that choice isn’t easy — there was much that was good about their marriage. Marriage Story understands a lot about relationships, how they fail, and also how the two people can still find room in their heart for the other person after it’s over. If anything, the film argues that the very institution of divorce is often the mechanism that drives exes apart. On our own, we might be able to make a separation work. But the Divorce-Industrial Complex won’t allow that to happen.

Baumbach, who wrote and directed Marriage Story, has often focused on how love doesn’t last. Whether in The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding or The Meyerowitz Stories, relationships are fraying, their chances of being repaired highly unlikely. But his new film might be his most compassionate, not only because he clearly loves Charlie (Adam Driver), an avant-garde New York theater director, and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress who moves back to L.A. and decides she wants their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) to live with her. It’s that Baumbach movingly illustrates how easily couples can be torn apart by the people they’ve hired to supposedly look after their best interests during a divorce. Even in the best circumstances, relationships are delicate, fragile things. Only the hardiest of souls make it through a divorce alive.

Marriage Story is almost a procedural, chronicling the step-by-step process of Charlie and Nicole’s conscious uncoupling. She feels stifled, tired of supporting his dreams while getting little back from him, and so, she returns to L.A., needing some time apart. But soon she meets with a lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), who encourages her to take up her own space — to rediscover the artist she wants to be. It’s an empowering notion on Nora’s part, but also somewhat underhanded: Nora is a divorce attorney, so she has a vested interest in the outcome. 

Emboldened, Nicole meets with Charlie, serving him divorce papers. He’s thrown — he didn’t think the separation was permanent — and so, hurt and angry, he seeks out his own attorney, Jay (Ray Liotta), who tells him he’s going to have to fight dirty. After all, Nora fights dirty — does Charlie want to get taken to the cleaners? Also, Jay is really good, but he’s also really expensive. Sure, Charlie could go find a cheaper lawyer, but his chances of keeping his son would drop precipitously. Charlie doesn’t want that, does he?

And that’s how the ball gets rolling. Cutting back and forth between Charlie and Nicole — between New York and L.A. — Baumbach dramatizes a slow escalation of animosity between two people trying very hard to remain civil, but that’s a losing battle. Marriage Story is assiduous about not making either character the villain. Charlie is self-centered, but he’s also fiercely loyal. Nicole is a bit wishy-washy, but she’s also eternally supportive. A funny thing about this movie is that we meet these people as they’re splitting up, but the more we get to know them, the more we understand why they were so well-suited for one another — just as they’re getting ready to call it quits. 

Baumbach’s films are known for their bitter humor and dim view of humanity — in his worlds, we’re all just impossible creatures destined for unhappiness — but he’s surprisingly tender here, practically marveling at Charlie and Nicole’s capacity for holding onto their kindness. Partly, it’s because they both love their son and want what’s best for him. Also, they still do love each other — they just couldn’t make it work.

This isn’t a film with big plot twists or 11th-hour revelations. Where you think it’s headed is where it’s headed — and that’s because everything in Charlie and Nicole’s lives has been put into place to ensure that it does. When Charlie gets rid of his lawyer and hires another, the more kindly Bert (Alan Alda), his attorney and Nicole’s meet with their clients in a big conference room, all chummily talking as if getting a divorce is the most natural thing in the world — it’s just a procedure, like having a cavity filled. Baumbach films these scenes with an antiseptic horror, as if neither Charlie nor Nicole can quite understand how it got to the point that they’re sitting in a sleek L.A. office debating about visitation rights. Is this what the end of love looks like?

If a good marriage requires commitment and teamwork from both parties, then so does a good divorce. There are moments in Marriage Story where Charlie desperately tries to speak to Nicole alone, convinced that if it’s just the two of them, they can hash out a settlement. But Nora is too much of a shark to let that happen — and maybe, deep down, Nicole wants Nora to be the bad cop, to fight back against the husband she too easily allowed to push her around in their marriage. This is how the Divorce-Industrial Complex works: It’s a well-oiled machine designed to exacerbate the growing frictions between partners. It’s built to convince the people divorcing that they’re right to be going through it.

Marriage Story is a litany of meetings, phone calls, cross-country flights, tense compromises and money woes. Rarely have I seen a film in which I kept thinking about how much everything cost — the hiring of attorneys, the renting of an out-of-town home to be closer to your son, the endless billable hours. Things would be easier for Charlie if he just let Nicole have everything she wants, but he’s determined to be part of Henry’s life, which means spending more money to make that happen. Baumbach documents all the minor hassles and major financial anxieties that descend upon couples as they’re going through a divorce. Never mind that Charlie and Nicole are also trying to get ahead in their competitive, difficult artistic careers — they spend as much time working on their divorce as they do their jobs.

Marriage Story doesn’t have a conventional happy ending because the mechanics of divorce aren’t concerned with that. It stirs up these characters’ most painful insecurities and then weaponizes them against the other person. (Plenty of movies have a scene where a longtime couple suddenly dredges up an old argument, seemingly out of the blue; Marriage Story was the first time where that dramatic cliché actually felt incredibly resonant.) The happiest people in this movie are the divorce attorneys — they’re the only ones whose lives aren’t being utterly upended.

In Steve Martin’s romantic comedy-drama L.A. Story, his lovelorn weatherman character wonders, “Why is it that we don’t always recognize the moment when love begins, but we always know when it ends?” I’ve thought about that line a lot, and I’m not sure I ever completely agreed with it. Even when relationships have ended, there was always a residual of love I felt for that person — and I’d like to think that that other person still felt a residual love for me. Love doesn’t end — it just changes. The divorce in Marriage Story isn’t good news, as Louis C.K. suggests. It’s just a new form of loving that other person. The best Charlie and Nicole can hope for is that this new form allows them to still hold onto what bonded them in the first place. That’s as close to a happy ending as they could wish for.

Here are three other takeaways from Marriage Story

#1. Remember that time that a film critic said that Noah Baumbach’s mother should have had an abortion?

Reviewers can be vicious bastards. But, sometimes, a movie is bad and deserves the scorn. Other times, a critic just has a personal vendetta against a filmmaker, and he takes it out on the guy’s movies.

Hence the infamous case of Armond White, who currently writes for National Review and considers himself a truth-telling contrarian, and Baumbach, who had the misfortune of having a mother who pissed off White years ago. Here’s the long story short: Baumbach’s mom is former Village Voice critic Georgia Brown, and she and White didn’t much care for each other. In fact, they once had an apparently contentious face-off, in which he accused her of being a racist. When Baumbach started making movies, White went after him, saying in an interview that, although he’d never met the filmmaker, he knew he was an “asshole”:

“You look at Noah Baumbach’s work, and you see he’s an asshole. I would say it to his face. And, of course, he gets praised by other assholes, because they agree with his selfish, privileged, stuck-up shenanigans. I don’t need to meet him to know that. Better than meeting him, I’ve seen his movies.”

The bad blood between filmmaker and critic got so intense that White was temporarily banned from attending an advance screening of Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg. If that seems a bit extreme, well, keep in mind that White once suggested that Baumbach should have never been born. In a review of the filmmaker’s 1998 comedy Mr. Jealousy, White didn’t mince words: “I won’t comment on Baumbach’s deliberate, onscreen references to his former film-reviewer mother except to note how her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents. To others, Mr. Jealousy might suggest retroactive abortion.”

To date, White has yet to see Marriage Story. I feel pretty confident he won’t have much nice to say.

#2. This is the best L.A. joke in ‘Marriage Story.’

Baumbach, a diehard New Yorker, enjoys poking nonstop fun at West Coasters in his new movie. These jokes usually involve scenes in which Charlie has gone out to L.A. in the hopes of seeing his son, only to discover how weird he finds the city, its culture and its denizens. 

In general, I’m pretty patient when it comes to L.A.-bashing. Hey, no city is perfect, and I love where I live, so I don’t care if others throw shade. As a result, most of Marriage Story’s zingers about Angelenos’ vapidity didn’t bother me. But there’s one joke — more of a sight gag, really — that really stung. In a few seconds, it encapsulates what’s so infuriating and soul-crushing about this city.

At one point, Charlie is in the car, a very L.A. item, with Henry, and he’s trying to pull into a parking lot and get the ticket from the automated machine. The problem? He didn’t pull up close enough to the machine, and now he has to do that thing every L.A. resident has to — which is stretch his arm awkwardly out the window, hoping against hope that he’ll be able to reach. It’s a silent comedy of futility.

Since seeing Marriage Story, I’ve actively put in more of an effort to make sure I get a little closer to the ticket machine when I park. I love L.A., but there’s something unspeakably sad about having to stretch for that ticket. It reduces us to little kids, dumbly trying to grab at something we’ll never, ever get. If that’s not a metaphor for L.A.’s mirage-like superficial glamour — that tantalizing item just out of reach — I don’t know what is.

#3. Here’s the next Adam Driver movie you should see.

Adam Driver has been on a pretty remarkable run, breaking out as Lena Dunham’s complicated boyfriend on Girls and then being consistently excellent in films such as Inside Llewyn Davis, While We’re Young, Silence and BlacKkKlansman. And, of course, he’s part of the biggest franchise in the world, playing Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars trilogy. If that wasn’t enough, he also managed to be hilarious on the generally unfunny Saturday Night Live:

But I’d like to give a shout-out to a Driver performance that I think is really special — and may not be as well-known. It’s 2016’s Paterson, from writer-director Jim Jarmusch. The film is deceptively slight, but it grows in force as it moves along, telling the story of Paterson (Driver), a soft-spoken bus driver and occasional poet living a simple life in New Jersey with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). Over the course of a week, we’ll watch Paterson do basically the same thing every day: get up, go to work, stop for lunch, write a little poetry, come home. But this is no Groundhog Day, because the slight deviations in each day suggest all the tiny ways that every day is different than every other. Paterson doesn’t need to “solve” any grand mystery — he’s just going through life the same way the rest of us do.

One of Driver’s best qualities is his stillness — the sense that his characters are quietly, thoughtfully considering the world around them. There’s something inexplicably melancholy about his performances — he has this lovely hangdog ordinariness. This makes him a perfect Paterson, who has an artist’s soul but a lack of forward momentum. The guy drives around all day, but he’s not going anywhere. 

Paterson is a remarkable little gem, like a little secret worth discovering and sharing with your friends. Allow me to share it with you.