Charlie: I don't know how to start.
Marriage Story is a 2019 dramedy film directed by Noah Baumbach. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival in late August and had a limited theatrical run in November before being released by Netflix on December 6.
Charlie (Adam Driver) is a prominent New York-based theatre director; Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is his lead actress. They were married for 10 years and are parents to an 8-year-old son, Henry, but are now separating.
Their separation coincides with Nicole's move to Los Angeles, where she has been offered a role in a TV pilot. Los Angeles is Nicole's home and she intends to take Henry with her to settle there. However, Charlie's life and career are built around New York and he cannot imagine relocating from the city, but he also cannot imagine living away from Henry.
As a result, a separation that began amicably heads to a bitter court battle, especially once Nicole and Charlie each hire high-powered attorneys (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta) who both relish the opportunity to "win" this no-win situation for their respective clients.
- Abusive Parents: Charlie's parents were apparently violent alcoholics. Details aren't mentioned, but Charlie appears to have no relationship with them, shows no interest in ever visiting his hometown, and becomes extremely upset when he's compared to his father. Nicole mentions only meeting them once with the strong likelihood that they don't even know they have a grandson.Nicole: His parents — I only met them once — but he told me there was a lot of alcohol and some violence in his childhood.
- Ambiguous Situation: Nicole has valid reasons for moving to LA, but abruptly filing for divorce while there puts Charlie at a big disadvantage. It's unclear whether she intended this or not.
- Amicable Exes: What Charlie and Nicole are aiming to be for the sake of their son, Henry, and the loving marriage they once shared. This grows subverted as their divorce becomes far more bitter than either anticipated, but double subverted by the end, as they are able to be amiable in the final scene and co-parent.
- Amoral Attorney: Nora and Jay are straight examples, though the latter is more upfront about it. Averted with Bert, however, who wants the divorce to be as painless as possible for everyone, especially Henry.
- Artistic License – Law: While the film generally depicts the legal process realistically (to the point where several lawyers have complimented the film's depiction of the legal process of divorce), it does take a few liberties for dramatic purposes. The biggest departure from reality is that Nicole has not lived in California long enough to establish residency and file for divorce & custody there.
- At Least I Admit It: Unlike Nora, who hides her aggression behind a facade of friendly sympathy, Jay never pretends to be anything other than a bulldog who'll do whatever it takes to win. He openly berates his own client for suggesting the case would be amicable, because the only reason to pay his astronomical hourly rate is because it's going to be a fight. Whether this makes him more or less sympathetic is a matter of opinion.
- Author Avatar: Played With. While there are clear parallels between the divorce of a hip, New York-based director (Baumbach) and his actress wife born and raised in Los Angeles (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Baumbach stated that it was based on a collection of divorce stories from various friends.
- Berserk Button: Do not ever tell Charlie that he is like his father.
- Big Applesauce: Played With. Charlie clearly loves New York City. Nicole mentions that, while he hadn't grown up there, he was "more New Yorker than most New Yorkers." This becomes a problem because he never seems to consider that Nicole and Henry wouldn't want to stay there. Nicole's hometown is Los Angeles and it is also the city of her choice. It's just that until their separation, Charlie assumed that the family belonged to New York because he belonged there.
- Bittersweet Ending: By the end, having gone through a miserable and expensive process, Charlie and Nicole ultimately come to terms that their marriage is clearly over, their family dynamic will never go back to the way it was, and they both seem to regret what they've lost. However, they do prove that they can co-parent their son reasonably and with kindness towards each other.
- Blatant Lies: Charlie, literally dripping blood after slicing his arm, insists to the court evaluator that he's fine. He then tries to hide the gash by pulling down the sleeve of his shirt. That should take care of it.
- Book Ends: The film opens with Charlie and Nicole explaining why they love each other via voiceover to the audience. This manifests as writings the two are to read to each other in a mediator's office; Nicole staunchly refuses to read hers, which forms a lack of unity that invalidates the whole process. Towards the end, Charlie stumbles upon Nicole's writing when he sees Henry obliviously sounding his way through it, and slowly breaks down while reading it for the first time as Nicole watches from the doorway, in tears herself.
- Both Sides Have a Point:
- Charlie's whole career is based in New York, that's where Henry lived his whole life, and it's reasonable that he'd assume they were based there. But Nicole is also right (even Charlie doesn't dispute it) that she's always wanted to return to LA, and Charlie let her think they would someday, only to always put her off.
- Nicole does manipulate the situation by getting an aggressive lawyer after promising Charlie she wouldn't. She also takes advantage of his assumption that they would together amicably to put him in difficult situations. However, she's justifiably angry, having found out that he'd cheated on her, as she suspected.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: The court evaluator's blank stare and Cloudcuckoolander behavior put Charlie on edge causing him to overcompensate and make a lot of mistakes. She starts off by ringing the wrong doorbell, but goes on to ask Henry an Armor-Piercing Question and readily spots the hole Charlie punched in the drywall. Whether or not she does this on purpose isn't clarified.
- Casting Gag:
- Laura Dern plays Nicole's Large Ham lawyer who wears very extreme, eye-catching outfits, almost identical to the character Dern played in Big Little Lies, Renata, especially in Season 2, when Renata helped her friend Celeste with a custody battle.
- Scarlett Johansson plays an actress who was previously very well known for her Ms. Fanservice roles earlier in her career and who has now graduated into doing more serious work. While this isn't an exact reflection of Johansson's career, she has been for a long time typecast in Ms. Fanservice roles, such as Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and the earlier Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, alongside less mainstream and more edgy work like Lost in Translation, Jojo Rabbit, and Under the Skin, with her career also starting as a teenager.
- Cool Old Guy: Bert is a likable, moral person who gives Charlie good advice and wants to avoid the divorce being any worse than necessary, especially for Henry, and is generally a kind person. He's also played by Alan Alda, making him this by default.
- "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot:
- Bert outright warns Charlie how the case is going to end up, and advises him to settle. Charlie gets a more aggressive (and expensive) lawyer to fight it in court, and after a long and painful process, winds up with almost exactly the settlement Bert advised.
- A subtler example, but at the end, when Charlie reveals he took a residency in LA to be closer to Henry, Nicole is visibly hit by the news. It's possible that, had he been willing to do so earlier (when she'd wanted him to), their marriage might not have fallen apart.
- Courtroom Drama: A painfully realistic version. Both Charlie and Nicole know that going to court will be tremendously expensive and only further their animosity towards each other, and they avoid going as long as possible. Their one trip to court more than lives up to their worst fears and most of their divorce is negotiated in private settlements.
- Creator Couple: In-Universe. Charlie is a prominent New York theatre director while Nicole is an actress in his company.
- Crusading Lawyer: Nora has shades of this, occasionally launching into passionate tirades about how society mistreats women. It's unclear how much of her passion is genuine, and how much is performed to advance her case.
- Custody Battle: Charlie and Nicole fight for custody over their son Henry since Nicole wants to move to Los Angeles while Charlie wishes to remain in New York. During the proceedings, Nicole's lawyer asserts that mothers automatically deserve custody over fathers. The film ends with both Charlie and Nicole trying to co-parent amicably for Henry's sake.
- Divorce Assets Conflict: Double Subverted. Both Charlie and Nicole have their own careers, and neither of them wants to take anything away from the other. But once they get into a battle over custody, and subsequently hire Amoral Attorneys, everything becomes part of the fight, including money. At the end of the film, the division of assets is basically exactly what they'd originally wanted, and they acknowledge that things would have been less painful if they had just worked things out between the two of them.
- Divorce Is Temporary: Very much averted, the film begins by making it clear that reconciliation is unrealistic, and it gets worse from there. Even when it's clear that they still care about one another, it's also obvious that the marriage is over.
- Everyone Has Standards: Charlie is uncomfortable with Jay's tactics to start with, but walks out when Jay suggests extorting Nicole's mother by threatening to keep Henry away from her. As things get worse, Charlie finally does hire Jay, but that particular tactic is never pursued.
- Extreme Doormat: Nicole. She allowed her mother to control her life, allowed her husband to control it from then on, and ultimately ends up under the full control of her divorce lawyer. Under each "guidance", she does things she doesn't want but doesn't protest or try to speak her mind, instead just going with the flow. Just watch her scenes with Nora.
- Family of Choice:
- Nicole's mother, Sandra, is this to Charlie. Much to Nicole's indignation, her mother continues to treat Charlie as "family" after the marriage is over.Sandra: And we love Charlie.
Nicole: You have to stop loving him, Mom. You can't be friends with him anymore!
Sandra: Charlie and I have our own relationship, independent of your marriage.
- The theater company also seems to be this for Charlie. Nicole comments that, having no relationship with his own parents, he has a knack for this.Nicole: He's brilliant at creating family out of whoever is around.
- Nicole's mother, Sandra, is this to Charlie. Much to Nicole's indignation, her mother continues to treat Charlie as "family" after the marriage is over.
- The opening features the two main characters reading lists they've written as an exercise for their mediator in which they tell what they like best about each other. They each list being "competitive" as something good about the other person.
- In the opening montage, when Nicole is talking about Charlie being "competitive", we see a flashback of him appearing genuinely angry about losing a game of Monopoly to their 9-year-old son. This gives us a glimpse of Charlie's temper problems right from the start.
- Good Is Impotent: Ultimately averted. Bert is a sweet and kindly old lawyer who genuinely cares about his clients and puts Henry's interests first, but his amiable nature seems to allow Nora to just roll over him. In the end, though, the much more aggressive (and expensive) Amoral Attorney he's replaced with can't get a better deal, and taking Bert's advice in the first place would saved a great deal of time, money and pain.
- Grey-and-Grey Morality: Neither Charlie nor Nicole are better or worse than the other. Both do questionable things but remain fundamentally likable people. Similarly, both parties' lawyers tend to skew the truth to present the case favorably for their respective clients — not because they are evil but because that is what their job requires them to do. Nora states outright that "the system rewards bad behavior".
- Happy Marriage Charade: Charlie seems to honestly believe that their life in New York to have been a good one until Nicole abruptly "decided" that she was unhappy. Nicole argues that she'd been miserable for a long time, and Charlied had just assumed that she was happy because he was.
- Hate Sink: While Nora is shown to be something of a Jerk with a Heart of Gold who has a genuine interest in helping Nicole in spite of her extreme methods, Jay is never shown to be anything other than a short-tempered and hard-nosed Amoral Attorney whose services bleed Charlie financially dry.
- His and Hers: The film has "his" and "her" teaser trailers titled "What I like about Charlie" and "What I like about Nicole" with voiceovers from Nicole and Charlie respectively.
- Ignored Expert: Bert is a highly experienced attorney, and is genuinely driven by trying to keep the divorce as painless as possible for everyone, especially Henry. Sadly, Charlie and Nicole let their emotions get the better of them and much of what he says goes unheeded.
- I Wished You Were Dead: Charlie's massive fight with Nicole, after some time of intensifying emotion and increasingly aggressive insults, ends with him screaming that every day he wishes she was dead, even going as far to describe how he wants it to happen (getting an illness and then being hit by a car). He immediately breaks down in remorse.
- Inelegant Blubbering: Both halves of the couple have their share of these moments.
- Innocently Insensitive:
- Charlie is flawed and self-centered, but he seems genuinely surprised when he realizes that Nicole was unhappy in New York. He was quick to let Nicole take Henry to LA, because it never occurred to him that she wouldn't want to come back.
- Henry says some very insensitive things to Charlie and makes his situation needlessly harder several times, but it's hard to fault him for any of it since he's only a kid.
- Insane Troll Logic: Bert's directions to Charlie often feel like this, but in truth, he's just offering candid advice about navigating an often inconsistent system, while trying to cover his bases. For example, if he doesn't have an apartment in LA, it will make him seem unstable, but if he gives up his apartment in New York, he can no longer claim that Henry should return there. By flying to LA regularly, he's proven to the court that he's willing to do so, weakening his case for having Henry returned to New York, but if he didn't do so, he'd be presented as an absentee father, weakening his case for custody, in general."Do you understand how frustrating this conversation is?"
- It's All About Me:
- Both Charlie and Nicole are painfully self-centered in their behavior and decision-making. The only subject they are capable of making any sort of compromises is Henry — not due to ability to step down, but the realization of how destructive it could be for his well-being.
- Nora and Jay both make the divorce proceedings go From Bad to Worse simply because they hate each other and don't want the other attorney to win. Nora's final act before leaving the film (settling the shared custody so Nicole be the one who will have more time with Henry) is a massive Kick the Dog event (it was done without Nicole's consent because she wanted a 50/50 split, and strictly for bragging rights).
- Jerkass Has a Point: Jay is quite furious when Charlie comes to him for out of court consultation, but justifies his stance by saying that Charlie is wasting money paying his expensive hourly rate for something that he could easily do with someone much cheaper.
- Jerk With A Heart Of Jerk: Nora. At first, she is shown to be hard-nosed, hard-hitting, and takes a few shots below the belt against Charlie when in court, but outside of that setting she is nothing but polite to him, even complimenting his work as a director, and everything she does is done seemingly because she begins to view Nicole as a friend and not just a client. But then she goes against Nicole's wishes and gets her a 55/45 split in custody over Henry, primarily so she could say she beat Jay.
- Kick the Dog:
- Nora goes behind Nicole's back and gets her a 55/45 custody split instead of the 50/50 Nicole wanted just because she wanted it for bragging rights.
- Charlie mentions, at the end, that Nora had demanded that Nicole get their couch, because it had been hers before the marriage. The couch is at least 10 years old and in New York, and she has it moved to LA just so she could deprive Charlie of a place to sit.
- Kiddie Kid: An example that verges on being a case of Ambiguous Disorder; Henry seems pretty immature for his age, and is still struggling to read at the age of 9.
- Leaving You to Find Myself: Nicole realizes that this is one of the reasons that she has decided to separate from Charlie: she wants to be alive for herself and not just "feeding his aliveness".
- Lonely Bachelor Pad: Charlie's apartment in LA initially barely has furnishings. When he realizes the social worker will take it against him, he spruces it up, even recruiting his set designer to guide him in making it look nice.
- Love Forgives All but Lust: Zig-Zagging Trope. As Nicole tells it, Charlie's suspected infidelity is a footnote, a largely unimportant detail in her reasons for wanting a divorce. Nora, however, latches onto this detail and blows it up into a big deal. Seeing Nora do this, Nicole herself comes to see it as a bigger deal than she once did.Nicole: I think Charlie also slept with Mary Ann, the stage manager.
Nora: [vehemently] That fucking asshole.
- Mood Whiplash: A tense argument about whether or not the family lives in New York is abruptly interrupted when a paralegal asks if they should order lunch and everyone discusses their orders while Nora and Bert compliment Charlie's play before they get to arguing again.
- Momma's Boy: Henry is going through a "mommy phase" during his parents' divorce but this serves as a semi-deconstruction given how Henry's slight preference towards Nicole means Charlie has to try even harder to gain custody over their son.
- Nervous Tics: While talking to Nora on the phone, Charlie anxiously flicks the blade of his pocket knife in and out.
- One Head Taller: The height difference between the 6'3" Adam Driver and the 5'3" Scarlett Johanson results in this.
- Only Sane Man: Bert is the only party to want to avoid a bitter fallout and custody battle. He lacks Charlie and Nicole's emotional attachment or Nora and Jay's self-interest and petulance, while providing Charlie with genuinely good advice built around making the process as painless as possible, especially for Henry.
- Parental Favoritism: Inverted. Henry is an only child, and is shown to generally favor Nicole over Charlie. She claims he's just "going through a mommy phase", but that preference, in the midst of a divorce, clearly worries Charlie a lot.
- Parents as People: Both parents love Henry but at some point, each parent's actions stop being about Henry and become more about defeating the other parent.
- Punch a Wall: At one point in the movie, Nicole and Charlie have a huge argument and Charlie punches a wall in frustration.
- Recycled Premise: Much like The Last Five Years, it's an introspective and deeply personal look at the end of a relationship, inspired by the creator's own divorce. Both center around the marriage of two creative people which eventually breaks down at least in part because a professional mismatch in their careers sparks jealousy, and because one is too self-centered.
- Rule of Symbolism: We see Charlie on Halloween twice: once, he's dressed as The Invisible Man and once he's a Bedsheet Ghost. Neither bode well for his continued involvement in Henry's life.
- Sarcastic Title: Played With. The marriage is already over before the film begins — the film is about divorce, but Baumbach describes it as "a movie about marriage as seen through divorce."
- Shout-Out: On his first Halloween separate, Charlie dresses as The Invisible Man and wants his son to dress as Frankenstein.
- Stylistic Suck: From what we see of both Nicole's Star-Making Role and the pilot she films, they're quite cheesy. In spite of this, Nicole does her best to take the bad roles seriously.
- Sugary Malice: Nora and Jay have some towards each other, as she resents his presence and mutters some unkind things about him before going over to say hi and chat about his wife.
- Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
- Charlie's case for getting primary custody of Henry is that they were "a New York family", but Nicole and both of Charlie's lawyers repeatedly point out that there's little evidence to support this notion. Many of the big key events of their lives — such as their wedding and Henry's birth — took place in LA because Nicole wanted to share them with her family. Ultimately, he does not receive primary custody for these oft-highlighted reasons.
- When Nora tries to manipulate the case in Nicole's favor by bringing up Charlie's affair, Jay actually allows it. Why? Because as wrong as Charlie's actions were, Nicole only found out about it by hacking Charlie's computer and reading his emails, which is a felony.
- Sympathetic Adulterer: Charlie is revealed to have slept with his stage manager, and Nicole is enraged when she finds out. Charlie responds by pointing out that it only happened once, when they were already estranged, and that he'd never been unfaithful to her before or since. He also clearly feels terrible about it, refusing to continue the affair, even during the divorce process. Despite Nicole's justified anger, Charlie continues to be a sympathetic character.
- Sympathetic P.O.V.: Deliberately used: the first part of the movie is primarily seen from Nicole's perspective (emphasizing her unhappiness in the marriage and Charlie's insensitivity), while the second part is primarily from Charlie's (emphasizing how he feels blindsided and disadvantaged by the legal proceedings); the third part shifts to being seen from both of their perspectives.
- Tender Tears: One of the things that Nicole says she likes about Charlie is that he cries easily at movies.
- Tom Hanks Syndrome: In-universe. Nicole's most famous film role was a raunchy college sex comedy, but she went on to have a prolific career in various serious and artistically-driven stage performances. By the end, it's revealed that she's not only directing her own show, but has also been nominated for an Emmy for it.
- Too Much Alike: One trait that Nicole and Charlie both identify as liking about the other is competitiveness. Guess what happens when two highly competitive individuals who are married to each other decide that they both want to "win" the divorce proceedings.
- True Companions: Charlie's theater company is shown to be incredibly supportive and loyal to him.
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: The executive handing the number to a divorce attorney to Nicole. So far, the divorce was an internal affair going on its slow, gradual pace, with no hard feelings and nobody getting bankrupt (or robbing Henry's education funds). Everything goes to hell once Nicole gets in touch with Nora.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Nora is utterly ruthless in her attempts to get Nora the best deal possible, but justifies it with lofty speeches about how women are mistreated in marriages and society, and deserve strong advocacy. Whether this is genuine or for show is left unclear.
- What the Hell, Hero?: The blowout fight between Nicole and Charlie is essentially each of them delivering a barrage of these against the other.