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Happily Ever After Has Changed: Marriage Story

Updated on March 1, 2020


After several years of marriage, Nicole Barber has concluded that home isn't home anymore. Marriage Story tells of the dissolution of the marriage of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and her husband Charlie (Adam Driver). A transplant from California to New York, Nicole walked away from the opportunity of movie roles to perform in Charlie's theater troupe. They had experienced serious marital problems, and tried working on them with a mediator. When the mediator asked the couple to write a list of good and bad points about one another, Nicole found herself uncomfortable saying these things in front of anybody but Charlie. After being offered a TV role out west, she leaves for Los Angeles with the Barber son Henry (Ahzy Robertson). At first, mother and son live with her mother Sandra (Julie Hagerty). The first time Charlie comes to visit them at Sandra's, he gets served divorce papers by Nicole's sister Cassie (Merritt Wever). In spite of saying they would keep lawyers out of their divorce, Nicole has hired Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) to help with the final details.

This decision forces Charlie to spend more time than he'd like in California, for he is preparing to move one of his productions to Broadway. At first, he hires Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) to represent him because he doesn't have the money to afford a high-priced attorney. In the meantime, Charlie learns that he has received a substantial MacArthur grant for his theater work. While Charlie takes Bert's advice and finds an apartment where he can reside whenever he visits, they part ways over the notion that Charlie permanently relocate to the Golden State. With some of his grant money, he hires Jay Moratta (Ray Liotta), whom he had visited before Bert. While the Barbers agree on nearly every issue regarding divorce and custody, the lawyers face off in court and emphasize the worst qualities of the estranged couple, including infidelity, drinking habits, and invasion of privacy.


Much of the inspiration for Marriage Story came from writer-director Noah Baumbach's failed marriage to Jennifer Jason Leigh. In this movie, Baumbach shows his lead characters trying to find the balance between their frustrations and the feelings of love and respect they still have for one another. Both of them see the divorce proceedings as missed opportunities for career advancement. Nicole could have worked on screen following a successful teen comedy with dubious merit, but now has found a reason to put some distance between herself. Charlie, meanwhile, finds the success of his play limited because he's not always directly able to oversee it. Marriage Story reminds me in the best way of another outstanding divorce drama, the Oscar-winning Kramer Vs. Kramer. Words, in that movie, are used to tear down almost anything good that existed between the Kramers. The 1979 film is more contentious and vicious at times, and I kept wondering if Nicole and Charlie would grow bitter over the split and the legal matters. Baumbach brings the emotions to the forefront as they accept that not everything will end between them. Baumbach has presented divorce and family dysfunction well in his earlier films, such as The Squid And The Whale and The Meyerowitz Stories, but the takes these subjects to new heights with equal parts of anger and compassion.

Marriage Story gives Baumbach his best ensemble to date. Johansson shines as an actress who abandons a life with some security for work with personal potential. That search for potential continues as she gets a screen offer she hadn't had a few years earlier. Driver gives one of his best performances as Charlie, who gets blindsided be Nicole's decision to seek legal aid. That decision leaves him confused and upset as his life takes turns he never expected. Dern became the first actor to win an Oscar for her role in a Netlix movie. Nora may have a pleasant demeanor, but she happily fights for Nicole, and somewhat humbly reveals a little detail about the settlement that quietly shows her ability as a litigator. Alda has a sad-eyed look as Bert, who has divorce stories of his own. Liotta does well as Jay, who knows he has a challenge facing Nora. Hagerty delivers sweetness as Sandra, as well as a continued acceptance of Charlie.


Many marriages these days don't end with the death of a partner. Situations change, and the qualities that drew couples together don't keep them that way. Marriage Story shows a couple preparing for post-marriage by remembering they still have some duties as a couple. While their lives will take them in separate directions, they remain the guardians of a boy and need to deal with his upbringing. The legal system exerts its influence in the matter while trying to do what's best for the Barbers. Life is changing for the family, but the responsibilities remain in place in a different location.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Marriage Story four stars. We do - until we don't.

Marriage Story trailer

© 2020 Pat Mills


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