Do we choose sides when we watch “Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach’s brilliant and wrenching drama of divorce? The question, on the face of it, sounds facile in a dozen ways the movie isn’t. Rarely are there winners in divorce, and there are two sides to every breakup. “Marriage Story” is a movie that reflects that reality. It’s a dazzlingly layered and empathetic tale that delves deep into the lives of both Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a couple who are splitting up despite the fact that they’ve never stopped loving each other. They each have their reasons, their desires and arguments and defenses. It might seem to violate the essence of a movie like this one to declare that either one of them is “right.”
Yet I’d suggest it’s woven into the dramatic fabric of “Marriage Story” that as we watch this couple, looking on as their descent into the divorce-industrial complex plays out logistically and spiritually, we ask ourselves, at almost every turn: Who is making the mistake here? Who, if either of them, has committed the big wrong? The way we ask — and answer — that question is the driving spark of the film’s drama. Since the movie is unabashed in presenting the many ways that Charlie and Nicole are good together, we have our eye on the moral scale of every decision that led to their falling apart.
From the moment I saw and reviewed “Marriage Story” at the Venice Film Festival in August, I was always planning to circle back to this issue. But now that the film has been released (if you can call the ghostly, half-hearted distribution Netflix is giving it a release), that question had bled into a new dynamic: the calling of the movie on the carpet for not being enlightened or woke enough. “Marriage Story” is being assailed, by some, as a film about elite showbiz people (who are therefore not representative of a “typical” divorcing couple). And since Baumbach, in making the film, drew on the dissolution of his own marriage to the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, some have seized upon that as an example of a real-world, off-screen situation that stacks the deck of the film’s sexual politics — i.e., Baumbach gets to replay his divorce and, this time, control the narrative. The movie, to put it bluntly, is being dumped on for being about the travails of upper-middle-class white people, with a privileged white man at the helm.
That debate isn’t the subject of this column, yet it can’t help but figure in, since the question of whose side “Marriage Story” is on is a loaded one in the context of woke takedown culture. Is the movie, beneath the ripple of its complexities, an apologia for bad male behavior? If it were, it certainly wouldn’t be a good movie. Yet the head-spinning strategic gambit of “Marriage Story” is that the film, to a large degree, is angled toward a male point-of-view, only one that turns out to be supremely blinkered and problematic. In the eyes of some people, that automatically makes the movie suspect. But if you truly look at what’s happening on screen, “Marriage Story” is nothing less than the saga of an awakening.
The film divides its sympathies between both characters, but there’s no question that the narrative is dominated by Charlie, the downtown New York theater director who is blindsided by the decision of Nicole, a former indie It Girl actress, to take their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), to Los Angeles as she shoots the pilot episode of a new TV series. She wants to reignite her career — and why shouldn’t she? And if the series gets picked up? (Which it does.) She’ll want to relocate to L.A., which is her hometown, and where she yearned to move anyway. Charlie, his career and spirit implanted in the concrete soul of New York, never wanted any part of that move. He thinks that he, Nicole, and Henry, in their cozy pad in Brooklyn, are a “New York family.” And that, indeed, is what they’ve been. But mostly because that’s what Charlie wanted them to be.
In a provocative essay on the op-ed page of The New York Times, Jourdain Searles argues that “Marriage Story” is less “progressive” in its drama than “Kramer vs. Kramer,” made 40 years ago, because that film depicted Dustin Hoffman’s Ted Kramer as growing into the role of nurturer, whereas Adam Driver’s Charlie, stuck in the trenches of divorce hell, never takes on that role in such a tender, hands-on way. But I’d argue it’s implicit in “Marriage Story” that the revolution in masculine roles represented by “Kramer vs. Kramer” is one that Charlie has already emerged from. He’s an engaged and caring dad; he knows how to look after his son and be more than the breadwinner (the journey that Ted Kramer took at the start of “Kramer”). “Marriage Story” jumps off from a dilemma that sounds more superficial: What’s a couple to do when each partner wants to live in a different place? Who’s going to win that argument? And what does the outcome mean?
Almost any argument, within a marriage, can be about something larger than that argument. “Marriage Story” makes the audience feel blindsided, too, as we can’t help, at first, but sympathize with Charlie. Yet the world that’s churning inside Nicole comes rushing into the drama during the scene where she first consults Laura Dern’s divorce lawyer to the stars. In a monologue that becomes an extraordinarily spontaneous and expressive piece of acting, Scarlett Johansson articulates the reasons — the stirrings of Nicole’s heart, the workings of her mind, the place they interlock — for why the East Coast-vs.-West Coast conflict in her marriage embodied something so much bigger. It wasn’t just a power struggle about where they were going to live. It was about the primal issue of whether Charlie, wrapped up in his cushy bohemian life, actually heard her.
He didn’t. He wouldn’t. And that’s the wound, the sin, the problem. That’s why they’re getting divorced.
In “Kramer vs. Kramer,” Ted Kramer has to learn, for the first time, how to care for a child on a daily basis, and that’s a mountain for him to climb. But in “Marriage Story,” what Charlie is fighting for is the basic right to be with his child. (The kid can’t live in two places at once.) And that, in its way, is a question that transcends privilege. When I see reports about celebrity divorces in the tabloids, it always strikes me that issues of child custody are the supreme leveler. It doesn’t matter whether you’re wealthy, powerful, or the most beloved star on the planet: If so, the trauma of divorce may be cushioned (you won’t have to deal with the romantic-shopping-mall bummer of online dating), but when you’re compromised in how much access you have to your kids, you are, on some level, in the same position as the divorced nobody in Akron.
“Marriage Story” is about the traumatic sting of Charlie and Nicole’s separation, but more than that it’s about Charlie’s dawning realization that divorce may take Henry away from him. The film, for a long time, puts us “on Charlie’s side,” so that when he hires a world-weary schlub of a divorce lawyer (Alan Alda) and then a cynical shark of a divorce lawyer (Ray Liotta), we instinctively want him to “win.” But that’s only because the film has lodged us in a point-of-view that is demonstrated, over time, to be fundamentally self-centered. The marriage is beyond repair, but as the film colors in that marriage we see that it wasn’t always beyond repair. If Charlie had boxed his mind open in a different way, maybe he’d now be in a different place.
So whose side is “Marriage Story” on? You could say that the movie is a sleight-of-hand trick. It shows us more of Charlie’s side. In the end, though, it is firmly on Nicole’s side. Charlie doesn’t know what hit him, and that makes him a touchingly vulnerable and desperate figure. What he wants from the divorce-industrial complex is for the court in Los Angeles to side with the place he was at in his marriage: that it was the right thing for him to do to hold his “New York family” together. Yet the film embeds us in that outlook only to portray it as the one Charlie has to wake up from. If he’d woken up before, he might still be married. He thought he was the sun, the center of the solar system. But now he’s starting his life as just another planet. At least he’s finally in orbit.