Marriage Story

By: Jessica Goddard

At the Marriage Story screening I attended, a complimentary packet of tissues was waiting in the cup holder of each seat in the theatre.  Quite the statement.  So when the movie opens with both leading characters reading the lists of things they like about one another in front of a mediator, you know this will be a wrenching watch. 

Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) work together in Charlie’s small but successful theatre company in New York City.  Nicole is an actress and the star of the company’s latest play, which Charlie directs.  But when they get home from their well-received shows, Charlie sleeps on the couch.  They’re divorcing amicably in front of the rest of the theatre company, who whisper here and there about the marriage that fell apart before their eyes. 

To film a TV pilot, Nicole temporarily relocates to Los Angeles, taking the pair’s young son Henry with her.  When a colleague connects Nicole with a savvy divorce attorney (Laura Dern), the couple’s agreement to split up cooperatively without using lawyers goes out the window, and what unfolds is a dramatic downward spiral into the smothering realities of the divorce industrial complex.  Charlie is caught off guard by the assertion Henry should remain permanently in Los Angeles with Nicole, while Nicole considers it her turn to get what she’s wanted for years, which was to return to L.A. where her family is.  In the meantime, all of this back-and-forth costs a staggering, maddening amount of money. 

It’s hard to not see it as semi-autobiographical.  After all, director Noah Baumbach is a New York-born writer-director, and ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh is an actress from Los Angeles.  Together they have one son who would be around the same age as Henry is in the movie. 

Marriage Story is a sharply written movie that is so full of subtle twists and turns it never once stops being interesting and scandalizing, at least for this never-married, never-divorced millennial.  It could have easily ended in five different places in the final twenty minutes and still have been an outstanding film.  Every time it didn’t end, I was skeptical it could be improved by another scene and found myself pleasantly surprised. 

It is one of those rare longer movies where every scene is essential and adds something new that leaves you understanding the characters a little better.  And to engage with this story, understanding is crucial.


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