Movies

Review: Marriage Story

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are unforgettably good in this devastating (and funny) divorce chronicle.

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An L.A. divorce lawyer named Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) is commiserating with a new client named Charlie Barber (Adam Driver). Charlie's wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) has left him, and he needs guidance. Spitz, a rare nice guy in his dismal field, can only be minimally helpful. Divorce, he tells Charlie, "is like a death without a body."

Writer-director Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story isn't really a comedy, but it mines some rich laughs from the pain of modern marital collapse. The movie is distinguished by its script, which is trim and gripping, and by the performances of its two stars, who have likely never been better and are sometimes electrifying.

Baumbach begins the picture with Charlie and Nicole recounting the things they loved about each other in the better days of their relationship. But we soon see that this is only a couples-therapy exercise—those days are long dead. Slowly but steadily we get their backstory, which is set in the world of show business. (Baumbach has indicated that the movie is not specifically based on his split with ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh—following which he began his ongoing relationship with actor and now fellow director Greta Gerwig —but he's clearly on intimate terms with the throbbing post-connubial wounds we see depicted here,)

Nicole is a California native who was a well-regarded movie and TV actor when she met Charlie, who was a celebrated downtown theatre director in his native New York. Relocating to Manhattan, she began acting in his plays. Eventually she came to feel she'd become an appendage of his theatrical ambitions. Their love cooled and then iced over when she discovered Charlie had slept with another woman. Nicole moved back to L.A., taking their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her. Now, temporarily ensconced in the home of her kooky mom Sandra (Julie Hagerty), she is waiting for Charlie to fly in so she can serve him with divorce papers. This is not a ritual normally associated with mirth, but when Sandra—who has always liked her son-in-law—greets Charlie on arrival with a flurry of her customary hugs and giggles, an exasperated Nicole has to remind her to cool it. ("You have to stop being friends with Charlie.") Similarly, during an argument later on, Nicole slips and calls Charlie "honey," a reminder of how hard it can be to smother old affections.

Charlie and Nicole initially agree not to bring in lawyers as they end their marriage, but the paranoia engendered by divorce gets the better of them. First Nicole hires a leggy litigator named Nora (Laura Dern)—a landshark in blood-red stilettoes—who quickly trains her eye on a MacArthur grant that Charlie recently won. Spooked when he learns that Nicole will be seeking full custody of their son, Charlie decides that he needs a shark of his own—someone considerably more merciless than Bert Spitz. So he hires a blunt-force divorce warrior named Jay (Ray Liotta), who has all the charm and some of the demeanor of a tank.

The movie is a stinging examination of the ways in which divorce lawyers make everything worse—pressuring clients for derogatory stories about their soon-to-be-former spouses and relentlessly draining them of money. (Jay requires a $25,000 retainer before devoting even a thought to Charlie's case, and since his hourly rate is $900, it's clear he'll be running through that opening tranche of cash pretty quickly.) Then there's the series of cringingly funny scenes in which we watch Charlie putting up with a court-ordered "evaluator" (Martha Kelly), a mousy woman who installs herself in his rented LA house in order to render deadpan judgment on his interactions with his visiting son—another of the many degradations attendant upon divorce.

There are luminous moments scattered throughout the movie. In one spiraling argument between Charlie and Nicole, he loses control and barks out some unforgiveable words—yet when he collapses in despair, Nicole reflexively moves to his side to console him. And later, when Charlie takes an action that might once have saved his marriage, the look of subtle puzzlement that Johansson puts on Nicole's face is strikingly eloquent—how can he not realize that it's far too late for what he's still hoping?

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  1. “a stinging examination of the ways in which divorce lawyers make everything worse”

    Oh, come on, let’s reserve a bit of blame for the clients here. And the laws these lawyers are administering.

    1. I’ve often wondered how marriage and especially divorce would differ if marriage were entirely a private contract, and government oversight were limited to whatever enforcing it does for all contracts. I suppose you’d want to enforce that either party could break the contract at any time — no unbreakable marriages.

      But otherwise, would having to choose from many boilerplate contracts, or hammering out your own, perhaps put a little reality into such things? Would it cut down on all the custody and property squabbles?

      I can’t imagine it any worse than the mess we have today.

      1. That’s exactly what marriage is – a contract between two individuals. People should absolutely be able to sign 5, 10, or 20 year contracts (or pick a number). There is no doubt that it would eliminate a host of different squabbles.

        1. How very Ferengi of you.

        2. That’s exactly what marriage is – a contract between two individuals.

          Kind of. It’s a state-enforced template contract that no one reads until the divorce happens.

      2. It would be little different. Private arbitration would come up with similar results. Breach of contract is still breach of contract, and both sides want all they can get out of the split.

        The one difference is that such contracts would have terms in them. So one would know in advance what they would be losing. And would serve to keep marriages together for pragmatic financial reasons. But the bitterness would still be there.

        1. The one difference is that such contracts would have terms in them. So one would know in advance what they would be losing.

          This.

  2. “So…this ‘Marriage Story’ working title…any idea what you’re going to call the film when it’s released?”

    “No, ‘Marriage Story’ *is* the title I’m going to use.”

    “Uh…OK, then.”

    1. It’s like Love Story, without the happy ending

      1. Sad, because Scarlett’s lips were made for happy endings.

  3. Everyone wants to work with Darth Vader 2.0 now.

    Fun fact: Adam Driver is a US Marine who was discharged medically for an off-duty injury after September 11, 2001.

    I personally don’t think he is a very good actor but he did study at Julliard.

    1. As an actor he’s hit or miss. Being Dark Vader 2.0 actually stunted his career a bit, but I’m sure the extra money and fame was worth it. He’s a B+ actor that can rise to A- with the right director. So long as the audience doesn’t recognize him as Darth Vader 2.0.

      He should never have taken his Darth Vader 2.0 mask off.

      1. He’s a B+ actor that can rise to A- with the right director. So long as the audience doesn’t recognize him as Darth Vader 2.0.

        Adam Driver will never look like anything but Adam Driver.

        I’ll let audiences judge whether or not that’s a good thing.

    2. he was great in Lucky Logan as a hillybilly one armed veteran.

      1. He was good in Patterson

  4. From the plot summary, hubby committed adultery and that’s what made Johannson decide the relationship was over.

    If that’s what the plot says, then hubby would be the aggressor.

    It’s best to have simple legal rules which even a judge can administer. Like “the aggressor in ending the marriage loses marital rights, including custody.”

    Consider the alternative – give the judge the job of making an Oprafied analysis of all aspects of the marriage and the custody possibilities, maybe ending in the innocent spouse losing some or all rights.

    “But what if the cheating husband happens to be the better parent for custody purposes?”

    Well, then if he loved the kids so much, he could have showed that by not cheating on their mother.

    1. Well, then if he loved the kids so much, he could have showed that by not cheating on their mother.

      Or, at the very least, filed for divorce to begin with if he wasn’t happy enough in the marriage that he would actually consider cheating.

      Most of the time, perhaps all of the time, when someone cheats in a relationship, it’s because they feel they’re getting something they need from the other person that they’re not getting from their significant other. In a situation like that, it’s probably best to just end the relationship if it’s apparent that the significant other isn’t going to be able to give the person what they feel they need.

    2. f that’s what the plot says, then hubby would be the aggressor.

      It’s best to have simple legal rules which even a judge can administer. Like “the aggressor in ending the marriage loses marital rights, including custody.”

      Welcome to a concept called ‘no-fault divorce’.

      1. Welcome to losing your kids even though you’re not at fault.

  5. This sounds like it could have been a good story if it hadn’t been set in the foreground of the entertainment industry. Divorce is admittedly expensive as hell unless it’s done completely amicably.
    I once had a girlfriend whose divorce from her first husband cost about $50 for the filing fees at the courthouse, and that was mainly because both of them just wanted it over and done with. She already had full custody of the kids because her ex was a pilot and couldn’t take care of them full time anyway, and Colorado has a pretty simple mathematical formula for determining child support when you fill out the paperwork.

    However, how many guys are going to be able to relate to getting a divorce lawyer that asks for $25K up front? That’s almost as much as my truck cost when I bought it.

    1. No one wants to see young people or poor people sans a pot to piss in get divorced.

  6. best divorce movie “War of the Roses”

    1. Very cathartic. Aristotle would have approved if he weren’t so dead.

  7. 25K might be exaggerated but anyway, lots of guys have no choice but to pay whatever it takes to keep their ex from draining their bank account and running off with the kids, especially since most courts favor the wife when it comes to custody and child support.

  8. Telling your mother she should not be friendly with her grandson’s father. That is to definitely going to make this situation less emotionally traumatic for the kid.

  9. Sounds incredibly depressing – giving it a pass. I think I’ll watch JoJo Rabbit for a 3rd time instead.

  10. Nicole is a California native who was a well-regarded movie and TV actor when she met Charlie, who was a celebrated downtown theatre director in his native New York.

    Are they as insufferable as they sound?

    1. spoiler (I wish): the divorce court judge sentences them both to hard labor in Leavenworth, KS….working at a grist mill

  11. But did he give her a Peloton for Christmas last year?

  12. You can find all of such content on watchseries.tube which lists legal websites to watch movies and TV shows.

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