Noah Baumbach’s new movie, Marriage Story, is about the end of the marriage between Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). The film debuted on Netflix last Friday, and the Internet being the Internet, a discussion eventually cropped up about which “side” the film was taking and who was “right” and who was “wrong” and that discussion seems like a disservice to the movie. Baumbach, drawing from his own experience with divorce, doesn’t want to make us the judge in Charlie and Nicole’s custody case. He wants to make us a witness at the destruction wreaked by the banal divorce process.
Yes, it’s possible to take the sides. If you look at the structure of the movie, the first act seems to largely belong to Nicole, especially with her long monologue about why her marriage to Charlie fell apart. But then the movie largely shifts to Charlie, so it would seem that if you’re leaving Nicole behind, then your sympathies are supposed to be with Charlie even though he had an affair and stubbornly refused to support his wife’s ambitions. If we’re spending more time with Charlie, then he becomes our central viewpoint therefore we’re supposed to side with him.
But depiction and screen time are not endorsement, and what Baumbach is showing us is how Nicole understands what’s happening far faster than Charlie. This doesn’t make her “bad” and him “good” because the point of the movie is to show the process of divorce and the toll it takes on people. But even here, Baumbach isn’t saying that marriage is “good” and divorce is “bad.” There’s no way that Nicole and Charlie can stay together even though they still love each in some sense. The issues at play are more complicated than picking sides.
Nicole isn’t a villain simply because she’s accelerating the divorce proceedings. The marriage can’t be saved, and Charlie is dragging his feet. Both Nicole and Charlie’s actions are motivated by love for their son. If Nicole is getting a shark of a divorce lawyer who knows the system, it’s not because Nicole is the bad guy but because Charlie has forced her hand with not taking her seriously just as he didn’t take her career ambitions seriously. But on the other hand, Charlie’s not a villain because he was insensitive. He’s not even the villain because of his cheating, which was obviously wrong. If you look at Marriage Story and see “heroes and villains”, then I can’t help you because Baumbach is telling a story about people who eschew such simple definition. Yes, there are people who are saintly and others who are monstrous, but Charlie and Nicole are far more complicated than those categories allow.
Which is why such a discussion of sides is so frustrating. To talk about picking sides or what’s “good” or “bad” misses what Marriage Story is trying to do, which is to show the process of divorce. Baumbach himself has described the movie as a procedural for divorce, and that’s a fair assessment. The film explores the aspects of divorce we don’t really think about like when the marriage hasn’t been bitter, the expense of lawyers, moving into the life of a single parent, and much more. To simply say “Charlie wins” or “Nicole wins” misses all of that in favor of a frankly boring assessment that Marriage Story has no interest in making.
People are free to process art however they feel, but we should be wary of shortchanging that art in favor of a discussion that exists in opposition to what the art is doing. There are lots of great discussions to have about Marriage Story when it comes to the institution of marriage, the business of divorce, the strangeness of the legal system, and how love shifts and changes in unexpected ways. But if you’re chalking it up to nothing but wins and losses, you’re missing the richness of this terrific movie.