Marriage Story Explores the Reality of Divorce
December 9, 2019 | By Audrey Wang, Illustrations by Nadia Naeem
Marriage Story begins with Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in a mediator’s office. They’re each stubbornly clutch a list of what they love about the other — and their pride. This is supposed to make the divorce process easier. Even though the film is set during the process of a divorce, it’s really about the marriage. It’s tender, it’s funny, and most importantly, it’s real.
Illustrations by Nadia Naeem
Charlie and Nicole live in New York with their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Charlie is a play director while Nicole is an actor, and as their friends say: “It’s always been Charlie and Nicole.” A power couple both on and off the stage, the audience only gets to learn about their past through the present process of their divorce. Though the two don’t want them to, the divorce proceedings turn into a tug of war to fairly split up the life they lived before. All Nicole wants is to be back home and working in Los Angeles, instead in New York with Charlie. She wants to live her own life, something she realized she never got to do. Charlie, on the other hand, faces the push-pull of trying to be a great dad to the defiant Henry while flying back and forth across the United States.
Writer and director Noah Baumbach takes us through the absurd process of divorce in a mesmerizing way. The film is a series of vignettes with no set time increment, leaping by months, days, or even a number of hours with each scene change. Though the fighting couple does not want it, tensions escalate and lawyers get involved. A colorful cast of ridiculous lawyers (Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta) escalate Charlie and Nicole’s amicable break up into a courtroom brawl.
Despite the ludicrousness of these lawyers, Charlie and Nicole are firmly grounded in the harsh reality of separation. As though this isn’t hard enough, they have to care for Henry and try to give him the best parenting possible from opposite sides of the country.
Illustrations by Nadia Naeem
A stacked cast, Driver and Johansson give absolutely riveting performances that showcase the real story: the emotions in this ridiculous political game. The highs are high and the lows are low in their bittersweet relationship with each other. When it’s bitter, it’s fighting and screaming and when it’s sweet, it’s “honey,” and homemade haircuts. Driver’s stoic face with turbulent emotions under the surface evokes empathy for someone whose world is turned upside down. Johansson expertly depicts Nicole’s easy-going attitude, which can suddenly shift to steely reserve, and demonstrates the harshness of the situation for her, too. These tearful and genuine performances pluck at the heartstrings while Baumbach reminds us that as funny as the proceedings with the lawyers are, this is real, and it hurts.
Neither Charlie nor Nicole is fully correct, or fully to blame. Baumbach isn’t trying to get us to pick a side. Relationships are messy and, while we hope they don’t, they come and go too fleetingly. Baumbach does what he does best, telling an authentic story and reminding us of the pains and joys of being alive and sharing that life with others.