This might be one of the most thought-provoking movies I’ve watched in recent months. A terrifying story about the crush of a family, spousal envy, vengeance, victimization, and manipulation that can be analyzed for hours. I won’t waste your time retelling the plot – I’ll just give my honest review. Spoilers ahead!
Many call this story ‘beautiful’ and I’m not among them. Is this movie great? Yes, because I consider every thought-provoking movie great. Is it realistic? Yes, maybe even a bit too much so. Marriage Story reviews are everywhere and some suggest that the title of this film is misleading and that it would be better off with ‘Divorce Story’. I disagree with that – the issues that are highlighted in this story develop over the course of the marriage and the divorce is simply the result of all that’s been happening before.
I’d like to note that the leading actors in this movie were brilliant. I know many would disagree with me, but Scarlett Johansson looks so much more organic in her natural, no-makeup look. She was finally given a role that requires a lot of effort and she truly embodied Nicole – great acting on her part. Adam Driver was equally – if not more – awesome in his role of Charlie, his performance was very sincere.
I can’t help feeling that the director’s (Noah Baumbach) own experience with marriage and divorce has greatly influenced the plot and storytelling. The famous argument scene is extremely realistic and the Marriage Story has the angst and bitterness that so often exists when families break up. Nicole ruins Charlie as a person, as a theater director, and as a father and gets rewarded for it. Did Baumbach go through a similar experience himself? There’s no way of knowing.
Many reviews say that if you’re looking for a villain and victim in this story, you’re not watching the movie right. I say that if you see this movie as ‘beautiful’ you’re not watching it right. The answers lie on the surface and there’s not much digging that needs to be done to find them. This movie isn’t about healthy human relationships, but it is about human relationships. It’s a mix of despair, vengenace, unfairness, disappointment, hatred, self-loathing, and torture.
Lack of meaningful communication
On the tip of the iceberg is the issue of the lack of communication that has to exist in any marriage. Nicole and Charlie have been a couple for at least 8 years, however they don’t communicate properly in order to make just a marriage into a happy marriage. While Charlie is preoccupied with his work (directing his own company and being responsible for at least a dozen employees including his wife is a LOT of work I imagine), Nicole admits to only ‘make noise’ about what she really wants. Instead of communicating her own worries to Charlie in a way that would make him listen, she chooses to ignore herself and let the situation unravel itself. This is a huge mistake because lack of communication results in lack of trust and then eventually the failure of the marriage.
Spousal jealousy and envy
This issue isn’t that easy to spot if one chooses to watch this movie as ‘beautiful’ and with pink glasses on. In the beginning, Nicole tells in her letter about Charlie that ‘he’s very competitive’ and Charlie says the same thing about Nicole in his letter. The director puts the answer right in front of the audience, but there’s nothing ‘beautiful’ about spousal envy and competitiveness, so this message is being ignored.
The truth is, Nicole feels left out in their marriage and not because she dislikes Charlie. She despises herself for not becoming all she wanted to become. Every day she sees the genius of Charlie and it eats her inside, it makes her suffer to her core, because he’s her reminder of what she would want to be, but doesn’t have the guts to be. Starting as an actress in a teenage movie and famous for exposing her breasts, Nicole now plays in Charlie’s theater. Is she tied to this job though? In NYC she could probably find hundreds of other jobs if she’d want to, but she didn’t. The movie doesn’t indicate that Charlie didn’t let her do what she pleases – she was simply comfortable and content doing what she was doing. And for her comfort, he’s brutally punished.
In her letter, she says that “Charlie loves being a dad – almost annoying how much he likes it’ – does it sound like something a loving mother would say? Doesn’t a loving mother want a loving father for her child? Nicole’s feelings for her son are overshadowed by the jealousy and envy that’s eating her alive. It’s as if she says “I’d prefer if he’d be a bad father at least – then I’d be able to say he’s got at least some drawbacks”. Is her child’s well-being on her mind?
Over the course of the movie, we see that Charlie has two key drawbacks: he didn’t listen to Nicole when she ‘made noise’ about moving to LA and he slept with his coworker. Now, for anyone who’s in a relationship cheating partner is a nightmare. I don’t condone it in any case and I think it’s always better to separate with current partner and then sleep with whoever a person wants.
In case of Charlie’s cheating, we find out that they were already practically separated with Nicole, although still living under one roof. He says to Nicole that she stopped sleeping with him in the last year, and I consider sex as something much deeper than just physical relationship. Sexual relationship always has to do with emotional connection, trust, and love. Nicole says that ‘everything in a relationship is kind of like everything else’ and she’s right. If she didn’t want physical relationship with Charlie anymore, it means she didn’t want him at all anymore and let him feel it.
During the argument, Charlie says that Nicole should be more upset that he laughed with that other woman rather than that he slept with her and that’s the whole point. The fact that their sexual relationships were off indicated the death of their love, trust, and everything else that keeps people together. Charlie says that his life with Nicole was ‘joyless’ and that’s probably why she was capable of doing all the things she’s done to him.
At first, Nicole and Charlie decide not to involve lawyers, but Nicole grabs the child Henry (Azhy Robertson) and movies to LA following a job offer. Then, Nicole hires a no-mercy lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) who is brilliant. The scene where Nora serves tea and cookies, tells a bit about herself, and then instantly turns to encouraging Nicole to think of herself as a victim is an A+ sales pitch for a divorce lawyer. She connects with clients this way and she does her job very well, nothing else to say. Somehow during this conversation with lawyer, Nicole buys the lawyer’s ‘you’re the victim and we can crash him’ sales pitch and goes for it.
What Nicole proceeds to do:
- forces Charlie to engage in the divorce process in LA by filing in LA, draining his money and making him sacrifice his job fighting for his son
- visits 11 (or even more) lawyers in LA to reduce Charlie’s chances to find a good divorce lawyer (I was a bit shocked when little Henry said this number – I didn’t expect Nicole to be so vile)
- asks her sister Cassie to serve Charlie the divorce documents instead of paying a professional server to do it simply because being served by Cassie (who he considers his family) would hurt him more and Nicole knows it
- prohibits her mother to communicate with Charlie, even though they have great relationships and mother still continues to communicate with him behind Nicole’s back
- hacks Charlie’s email (that’s against the law) to find proof of his infidelity and then calls him ‘dumb fuck’ when he asks her how she’s done it
- pampers Henry to keep him on her side and the side of LA (I’ll get into the child issue later)
The hatred that’s accumulated in Nicole over the years can only be satisfied by one thing: completely ruining this man. And that’s what she does.
The child issue
If you’ve ever been anywhere near divorced parents who have kids, you know what bad divorce means. Parents end up playing tug-of-war, but instead of the rope is the child. Henry is only 8 and he doesn’t truly know any better. This is the age when children can easily be spoiled and Nicole uses evry opportunity to keep Henry on her side, e.g. rewards the child for pooping, creates games, lets him dress however he likes independently on the occasion. Charlie, on the contrary, tries to teach Henry some discipline, such as washing hands after using the bathroom, so he quickly becomes much less popular with Henry than Nicole. In the short run, Nicole wins, but in the long run will Henry from being spoiled?
Nicole frequently drinks, engages in sexual relationships with random people, and quickly find a man to substitute Charlie with. In the final scene of the film, Charlie enters the house only to find his son playing with his grandmother and Nicole’s boyfriend, but Henry is reluctant to even say ‘hello’ to him and hug. Nicole’s goal is achieved: Charlie can’t be the awesome father anymore because she sets all the boundaries to prevent that.
In the scene where evaluator woman visits Charlie and Henry, Henry refuses to help Charlie in the kitchen and just ignores him, refuses to learn anything, and admits that he’s not good at Math anymore.
The money issue
Lawyers are expensive, LA is expensive, and NYC is expensive. Instead of settling the divorce on their own, Nicole wants to better pay lawyers than save the money for Henry’s education in the future. Charlie’s ability to provide for Henry also depends on the success of his theater company and Charlie says that he funnels the money he gets back into the company, so there’s no that much he’s making.
At some point, Charlie has to rent an apartment in LA and keep flying back and forth, he loses the Broadway show, and starts spending money from the MacArthur Grant aka Genius Grant just to keep fighting for his son. He swaps his kind, wise lawyer Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) who is pro civil approach to his ‘own asshole’ of a lawyer Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), which means even more expenditures. Does Nicole truly worry about her son’s future? Even Nicole’s mother takes a loan against her house to help her pay the bills.
The aftermath and ending explained
Charlie loses his Broadway breakthrough chance because he’s busy flying back and forth to LA and NYC. His career isn’t as promising as before. Nicole has made her family cut ties with Charlie completely, meaning he’s now pretty much alone. He accepts two offers in LA just to be closer to his son.
When he visits them, his son is playing with his mom’s new boyfriend and mother. When the kid sees his dad, he doesn’t rush to him to give him a hug – he awkwardly stands in the doorway, not smiling with joy anymore. As Nicole enters the house, she talks to Charlie about how she’s a director now and she gets why he’s been so preoccupied with his work – because it’s a lot of responsibility. Does she regret crushing him this way? She talks about her career because she wants to show Charlie that she’s more successful than him now.
As Charlie walks to his car with Henry, Nicole stops him to tie his shoelace and I find this scene almost unbearable to watch. It demonstrates that Charlie is completely broken and unable to go on. He is a mess of a man now, utterly devastated. Everything he’s ever cared for has been taken away from him. He’s like a helpless child who can’t even tie his shoelace. Nicole demonstrates his final ‘win’ over him by tying his shoe. She looks down at him and knows that she’s been avenged now.
The way that Charlie and Henry read her letter is extremely disheartening. Nicole admits that she loved Charlie from the moment she saw him and it’s heartbreaking because if there was love, it means this family could be happy. Interesting how Henry doesn’t show any emotion in this scene at all – he reads it only as another book excerpt.
If there’s one thing that this movie teaches, it’s that people shouldn’t be afraid to go out and do what they want. If Nicole would have the guts to do it, she’d never feel overshadowed by Charlie – she’d be content with who she is and his success would be a joy for her. The truth is, Nicole has never been a team player – she always wanted things for herself.
Even when talking about pregnancy, she says ‘I thought that the baby could be ours, really ours… but it would also be mine’. To prove her own worth to herself, she wouldn’t need a child to be ‘hers’ – she only needed to do what she truly wanted and gain that sense of self-worth. Low self-worth of Nicole is obvious even when she asks Charlie’s opinion on her new hair color – she still seeks his validation, even though it was her who initiated the divorce.
This movie is an experience and won’t leave anyone indifferent, in my opinion.