Charlie Barber is a theater director residing in New York City. He has been highly successful, and his current production stars his wife, Nicole. However, while the couple appears to be happy on the surface, their domestic life is decidedly troubled. They are seeing a marriage counselor to rekindle the feelings of love they once had, but even this proves unhelpful. The relationship reaches a point of no return when Nicole, having been offered the starring role in a pilot in Los Angeles, leaves Charlie’s company to her mother’s residence in West Hollywood, taking their son, Henry, with her.
The name Marriage Story is deliberately ironic because the titular marriage portrayed in the film is in dire straits. Dying relationships had been portrayed countless times in fiction prior to 2019. It does stand to reason because a perfectly happy couple with little tension between them wouldn’t exactly lend itself to a lot of storytelling potential. This isn’t to say that true love is boring, but rather conflict is invariably necessary in order for people to invest themselves in a given plot – no matter how directionless it may be.
How Noah Baumbach approaches the subject is a little more tactful than most attempts. The stereotypical means by which directors achieve this goal is by having their actors deliver their lines in the most melodramatic, hammiest ways possible. If they sought bonus points, they may have had their characters gesticulate wildly while belting out lines nobody in real life would come close to dictating non-ironically.
Thankfully, Mr. Baumback refrains from doing any of this. In fact, he has the film begin with a monologue from Charlie wherein he describes his wife’s positive aspects. This is transposed with Charlie expressing frustration at Nicole’s various habits. Even his speech gradually becomes less positive, though his misgivings are made known in a very subtle, read-between-the-lines fashion. This is then followed up with a similar speech from Nicole. Again, it is clear she has a lot of respect for Charlie, yet darkness exists beneath her surface-level praise. They are, for the most part, good people, and they are absolutely not a match for one another; a divorce is inevitable.
Indeed, the opening foreshadows the kind of conflict audiences are to expect from this film. While many stories focusing on divorce tend to take sides, Marriage Story does not. As the film goes on, you learn that despite their good intentions, both of them consistently upset the other person. Charlie insists that they are a New York City family, and doesn’t make an effort to visit Los Angeles as often as Nicole would like. He is a man ultimately guilty of having an “I’m okay, you’re okay” attitude when it comes to his day-to-day interactions. He assumes that she is happy with whatever brings him joy – most notably his lucrative career in New York City. As it turns out, only he was truly happy in New York City – something even Henry disputes.
On the other side of the equation, Nicole is encouraged by a colleague to enlist the services of one Nora Fanshaw. Nora turns out to be a particularly aggressive individual, as she tries to get Nicole full custody of Henry. Nicole uses her lawyer’s zeal to manipulate the situation in her favor after promising she wouldn’t. However, her own ire is a bit more justifiable when you later learn that Charlie was cheating on her. Then again, she learned of this information by hacking Charlie’s email account, which is not only an invasion of privacy, it’s a felony. When watching, don’t be surprised if you end up switching sides constantly throughout the film. Eventually, you just want the best possible outcome for both of them – if not for their sake, then for Henry’s.
Admittedly, if it’s one aspect of this film that does hold it back, it would be the character of Nora Fanshaw. The film tries to portray her as a lawyer motivated by fighting the double standards prevalent in the court system. She notes that society often expects women to conform to traditional gender roles, and it is heavily implied she has won her cases through her vaguely promiscuous dresses rather than her legal acumen. However, this proposition falls apart when you realize that she often attempts to make Charlie to look worse than he actually is. She is attempting to get Nicole full custody of Henry when Charlie is a capable, loving father. He does yell at Henry at one point, but his anger was primarily directed at Nicole.
There is an unfortunate juxtaposition of Nora lamenting how unfair the system is biased against women while also exploiting key points in which it’s biased against men. This could have worked had it been the point, but the narrative doesn’t explore the disconnect well enough for it to come across as intentional. Anyone who has cracked open a history book can tell you that attempting to fight off a set of double standards with another set of double standards is a recipe for a nasty vicious cycle. This propensity factored into one of the key weaknesses of contemporary filmmakers, though unlike most cases, I didn’t get the sense the audience was supposed to be wholly on Nora’s side. Like everyone else in the story, she is definitely fallible.
Fortunately, this blemish doesn’t detract from the quality of Mr. Baumbach’s piece. In the end, the two of them split up amicably and get 55/45 custody of Henry. A year later, after having gone their separate ways, Charlie and Nicole are on good terms and enjoying a lot of success in their endeavors. She herself has become a successful stage director while he found new work in Los Angeles, thus allowing him to be closer to Henry. It is a shame that they couldn’t work it out and are unable to go back to the way things were, but there is a bright future awaiting both of them.
As a story focusing on the somewhat touchy subject of divorce, Marriage Story approaches its subject matter in a manner equal parts tasteful and fair. This isn’t a film that stacks all of the cards against one or both parties, and the conflict is made all the more human as a direct result. The worst thing one could say about it is that, by the end of the film, neither party comes across particularly sympathetic, but attempting to parse the film in such black-and-white terms misses the point of the narrative Mr. Baumbach crafted. This is not a conflict fought by good guys and bad guys; it pans out naturally between two believable characters. In this regard, the director was highly successful, and because of that, Marriage Story is doubtlessly worthy of a watch.
Final Score: 7/10