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"Everything is like everything in a relationship."

Nicole: I thought we should talk.
Charlie: Okay.
[Long silence.]
Charlie: I don’t know how to start.
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Marriage Story is a 2019 Netflix dramedy film directed by Noah Baumbach, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.

Charlie (Driver) is a prominent New York-based theatre director. Nicole (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. 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.

So 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.

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Tropes:

  • Abusive Parents: Charlie's parents were belligerent alcoholics and he makes a point of contacting or even mentioning them as little as possible.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Nicole's family is LA-based, but it's not made clear if she is, indeed, manipulating the situation when she abruptly leaves for LA and meets a lawyer in order to file the divorce there.
  • Amicable Exes: What Charlie and Nicole are aiming to be for the sake of their son, Henry, and the loving marriage they once shared. Despite how bitter the divorce process ends up being, Charlie and Nicole end up successfully becoming this.
  • Amoral Attorney: Nora and Jay are straight examples, though the latter is more upfront about it. Averted with Bert, however.
  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • Big Applesauce: Played With. New York is home for the Barber family... according to Charlie, at least. 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: Nicole and Charlie divorce more amicably than it looked possible. They get 55:45 custody of Henry. One year on, Nicole's happily dating someone and enjoying professional success. Charlie has taken a directing job in Los Angeles and will get to be closer to Henry. They even go on a trick-and-treat as a family and Nicole is happy to let Henry stay with Charlie for the night even though it is not his turn. But the fact remains that Nicole and Charlie are divorced and can never recreate the loving life together that they once had.
  • Blatant Lies: Charlie, literally dripping blood, insists to the court evaluator that he's fine. Then he tries to hide the gash in his arm 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 and they did live in New York as a family, but Nicole is clearly right (even Charlie doesn't dispute it) that he promised her many times they would go back to Los Angeles more, and then either reneged or turned down opportunities.
    • Nicole does manipulate the situation by getting an aggressive lawyer after promising Charlie she wouldn't, thereby short-changing him when it comes to lawyers. However, she had found out that he 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:
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: Bert outright warns Charlie how the case is going to roll, including all the fine details and pointless expenses he's going to make if he tries to "win" the divorce, seeing is as a competition, along with harsh and anger-filling court process. By the end of the story, not only do all the predictions become true, but Charlie and Nicole are both aware they could have avoided all of this if they just kept to their original plan of settling things down on their own.
  • 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.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Nora has shades of this, seeming largely motivated by fighting against the double standard, and by Nicole's tirade about Charlie's faults, while still remaining relatively restrained until he brings in Jay Motta.
  • Divorce Assets Conflict: Double Subverted. Charlie and Nicole refuse to do this at first for the sake of trying to be Amicable Exes for the sake of their son, but the moment Nora and Jay are hired, they both escalate the divorce proceedings into a full-blown war purely to prevent the other lawyer from winning. At the end of the film, Charlie and Nicole acknowledge that things would have been less painful if they had just done the divorce themselves.
  • Divorce Is Temporary: Averted. The marriage is really over.
  • 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.
  • Foreshadowing: 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.
  • Good Is Impotent: Bert, the first lawyer that Charlie engages, is a really nice guy who wants to treat both parties fairly and above all wants to look out for Henry's best interests. This makes him a terrible divorce attorney that Nora rolls right over. Charlie has little choice but to fire him and get a more expensive and formidable lawyer, Jay, who is more of an Amoral Attorney. However, this is also ultimately subverted; Charlie eventually settles more or less on the terms Bert originally suggested, and he would have saved a lot of time and money if he hadn't viewed the divorce as a competition to begin with.
  • 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.
  • Happy Marriage Charade: Charlie believed his and Nicole's life in New York to have been a good one until Nicole abruptly "decided" that she was unhappy with it. In reality, Nicole had made it clear countless times that she desired to live in Los Angeles rather than New York, and Charlie had just never seriously taken it into consideration.
  • 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.
  • I Wished You Were Dead: Charlie's massive fight with Nicole, after some time of intensifying emotion and more 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 (she gets an illness and is then hit by a car). He immediately breaks down in remorse.
  • Inelegant Blubbering: Both halves of the couple have their share of these moments.
  • Informed Ability: Henry is supposed to be a smart kid. He can't read, despite being 9 by the time the story wraps, an age where most kids have that ability. While there is the possibility of a learning disability, this is never implied and Henry isn't shown to be smart in other ways.
  • Innocently Insensitive:
    • Charlie is actually a Nice Guy and loves Nicole very much. It's just that he assumes that she is happy with what makes him happy — for example, the fact that they live in New York and not Los Angeles. It's not until the divorce proceedings bring to the fore what Nicole wants out of life that Charlie realizes that his assumptions may have been incorrect.
    • 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.
  • It's All About Me:
    • Both Charlie and Nicole are painfully self-centered and narcissistic 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.
  • Kicking Ass in All Her Finery: Nicole's lawyer, Nora Fanshaw, wears outfits that are to die for and metaphorically kicks ass while wearing them.
  • Kiddie Kid: An example that verges on being a case of Ambiguous Disorder; Henry is eight years old but nearly illiterate.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Not So Different: Nora is kinder and more affable than Jay, but she's not averse to getting down and dirty in court to match his frivolous arguments with her own.
  • One Head Taller: The height difference between the 6'2" Adam Driver and the 5'3" Scarlett Johanson results in this.
  • Parental Favoritism: Henry is shown to generally favor Nicole over Charlie, though it's portrayed as simply being due to him being a little kid rather than anything deeper.
  • 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.
  • Reality Ensues:
    • 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 beyond Charlie's assumptions. 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.
  • 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.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Kramer vs. Kramer.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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 needlessly ruthless to Charlie and acts outside of Nicole's own interest, but is shown to be genuinely sympathetic to her situation and is overall portrayed more favorably than her counterpart Jay.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The blowout fight between Nicole and Charlie is essentially each of them delivering a barrage of these against the other.
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