Critic's Notebook: 'Marriage Story' and the Evolution of the Divorce Film

Courtesy of Netflix

While Noah Baumbach’s new movie has several similarities to other films about marital collapse, it also puts a bracingly contemporary and nuanced spin on the subgenre.

In a world of “conscious uncoupling” and trendy divorce rituals that border on bad satire, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a lacerating exploration of a dying marital relationship.

The film opens with Charlie and Nicole (brilliantly played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) listing each other’s virtues at the request of their mediator, hoping positive recollections will soften the blow of divorce (Nicole is a good listener, while Charlie is a terrific Dad, etc.). But that’s no longer enough for the rising New York theater director and especially his creative partner/muse, a former Hollywood actress who briefly made a name for herself with a few TV appearances. Charlie is indifferent to Nicole’s achievement (he never watches television anyway, he says matter-of-factly) and she, in turn, feels invisible. For years, Nicole has wanted to return to Los Angeles, her home base, a desire made all the more pressing when she’s offered the chance to do a pilot. Charlie has never had any interest in moving to L.A.

Nicole relocates there with their 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and the ugly tug-of-war between husband and wife over custody mushrooms, thanks in large part to the legal system and its practitioners (played to scene-stealing perfection by Laura Dern as Nicole’s commanding attorney in stilettos, who earnestly espouses, “What you’re doing is an act of hope,” and Ray Liotta as the $900-an-hour barracuda representing Charlie).

Charlie has the worst of it, attempting to keep his work in New York afloat while regularly flying across the country to see his son. Marriage Story provides a detailed look not simply at the dynamics of a couple spiraling downward, but also at the comic and horrible legal wrangling that takes place — which, most tragically, distorts Nicole and Charlie’s relationship even in retrospect.

The granularity of the legal procedural elements alone makes Marriage Story a cutting-edge entry in the “divorce movie” subgenre. Add to the brew the complicated, contradictory emotions experienced by the warring parties vis a vis each other and, more important, within themselves. Each has valid points; neither is a villain. In true contemporary style, everyone is doing the “right” thing, and it’s almost impossible to cast blame, unlike in so many films that cover the same territory.

If Marriage Story is an artistic leap for Baumbach, its seeds were evident in his 2005 The Squid and the Whale, a divorce narrative told from the perspective of a 16-year-old (Jesse Eisenberg) observing his artsy Park Slope family imploding. His mother, Joan (Laura Linney), is having an affair, but of greater relevance to their marital issues, she and husband Bernard (Jeff Daniels) are two writers whose fortunes are moving in opposite directions: Her career is soaring while his is dead in the water.

Like Marriage Story’s Charlie, Bernard is intellectually pretentious, valuing creativity above all else and eschewing commercial success. It’s a familiar Baumbach type, reaching full fruition in the filmmaker’s wonderful 2017 The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) with Dustin Hoffman as the aging patriarch, an artist grappling with mortality and legacy.

The anguish of divorce is natural film fodder, and it’s been amply covered over the decades in a variety of films, each informed by its genre and era. The slick sitcom Divorce American Style (1967) is galaxies away from Danny DeVito’s dark (ultimately violent) 1989 farce The War of the Roses or Husbands and Wives, a 1992 Woody Allen flick that is at once a comic tribute to Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage and a self-referential autobiographical pic detailing Allen and Mia Farrow’s disintegrating relationship. His is a rarefied New York City world where everyone lives in tastefully appointed and/or book-lined homes, makes good money and takes for granted satisfying careers in such settings as Columbia University and high-end editorial offices.

Indeed, all these films zero in on well-heeled, homogeneously white communities where men are usually the primary breadwinners while wives may or may not work. That said, women’s employment or lack thereof was leading to donnybrooks in films about divorce way before Marriage Story or even The Squid and the Whale hit the screen. In Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and War of the Roses, the wives, Joanna and Barbara (Meryl Streep and Kathleen Turner, respectively), are unfulfilled precisely because they have no identity outside the home. Barbara launches a catering business, but her husband Oliver (Michael Douglas) looks down his nose at her. He’s Harvard Law, she’s a State University gymnast; he’s articulate, she gropes for the right word. Her career blossoms and she grows to detest him, literally wishing him dead.

In Kramer, Streep’s Joanna and Hoffman’s Ted hail from the same class, but her yearnings have been ignored so she jumps ship to “find” herself, abandoning her son to Ted, who must now juggle two jobs: high-powered advertising writer and Mr. Mom, a gig he is ill-prepared to tackle. Nonetheless, he grows increasingly attached to his young son. When Joanna returns (as meteorically as she disappeared) with her newly spawned career in tow, she demands custody of their child. Joanna is not a simpatico character, though many would still come to her defense and there was no shortage of ink shed on the topic at the time, the height of the women’s movement.

Like Charlie in Marriage Story, the husbands in Kramer and War are baffled and enraged by their wives’ discontent. Each has worked hard to provide his family with a high standard of living. But unlike Charlie and, for that matter, Squid’s Bernard, the men in Kramer and War celebrate materialism, while their partners put a premium on communication. It was a long-standing trope that men don’t listen on the one hand and refuse to confide their own feelings on the other. That truism persisted, perhaps, until Allen came along and created male figures who discussed their emotional experiences ad nauseam. Arguably, their relentless airing leads to the breakups in his films; openness has its consequences, too.

Extramarital affairs also have played a role in onscreen divorce whether as the cause or symptom of deeper issues. Squid’s Joan is a cheater and so is George (Albert Finney), Faith’s (Diane Keaton) husband in Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon (1982). But nowhere is the extramarital affair a more defining event than in Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978), in which Erica (Jill Clayburgh) is unceremoniously dumped by her husband, Martin (Michael Murphy), for a younger woman. His infidelity leads to divorce and simultaneously becomes a vehicle for Erica’s transformation from devastation to a freshly acquired sense of self-worth. She’s no longer interested in Martin and even refuses to tie the knot with her new boyfriend Saul (Alan Bates), an embodiment of sensitivity, warmth, charm and physical appeal. Her independence takes precedence over marriage or even committing herself to spending the summer with a lover who’s beyond reproach.

Often the new love interest in divorce films stands in stark contrast to the spouse, thus functioning as further provocation. In Squid, Joan’s new beau (played by William Baldwin) is a youthful, intellectually limited tennis pro whom Bernard views as the consummate philistine. Similarly, in Shoot the Moon, Faith’s post-breakup lover (Peter Weller) is a young construction worker she’s hired to build a tennis court in her backyard, which George will have to bankroll. Squid’s Bernard and Husbands and Wives’ Gabe (Allen), both creative writing teachers, court their nubile, much younger students (played by Anna Paquin and Juliette Lewis, respectively).

At the same time, in these films, it often seems to be the husbands who suffer most intensely through the divorce, usually because they’re clueless. They also shoulder the exorbitant cost of child support and alimony, causing their own lifestyles to plummet. In Squid, Bernard’s new abode is in serious disrepair and sparsely furnished — a far distance, literally and metaphorically, from his previous (and now his wife’s) comfy Park Slope brownstone. In Divorce American Style, the lowered economic status of the hubby played by Dick Van Dyke is played for laughs. The film’s comic heavy, a sleazy ex-husband (delightfully brought to life by Jason Robards), spends his time concocting ways, one scheme more Machiavellian than the next, to get his ex-wife wealthily remarried so that he can regain his economic equilibrium.

Even in The War of the Roses, in which Oliver is staggeringly rich and doesn’t need the family home, he feels entitled to it because he paid for it and moves back in to establish ownership — resulting in a mounting melee of blood-curdling assaults. He’s also acting on the advice of counsel (a hilarious Danny DeVito), a figure of unabashed corruption — as seen through a Borscht Belt lens — who is the predecessor of the more finely realized legal avatars of divorce in Marriage Story.

The potential loss of one’s child (or children) is the crucible for the divorced dad, as first (and most poignantly) dramatized in the groundbreaking Kramer vs. Kramer, a film that depicts a father who, since his wife walks out on the family, is forced to become the superior parent and deserves custody. Who can forget its three-hanky ending, when Joanna relinquishes her court-awarded rights in favor of a higher moral ground? That was, of course, a feel-good Hollywood denouement, with its obligatory nod to feminism and its credibility up for debate.

More realistic was Shoot the Moon, which memorably illustrates the impact a breakup has on the whole family (including four daughters), as well as on new partners who are not bad people but, like everyone else involved, are trapped in a no-exit morass. Finney’s George, a successful writer (again), is having an affair and the tensions between him and Keaton’s homemaker Faith are mounting, finally erupting in an overplayed dish-breaking scene. Moving in with his mistress (Karen Allen) and her son, George is suddenly part of a new family and losing contact with his own children — especially his eldest, Sherry (Dana Hill), who, identifying with her mother, rejects him. In a drunken rampage, George spanks her mercilessly.

But the film’s final moments say it all. After George crashes through Faith’s newly built tennis court, destroying it with his car, he is beaten to a pulp by Faith’s construction worker lover (Weller). He lies battered on the ground, his children clustered around him, perhaps with forgiveness. He imploringly extends his hand to Faith, who, peering down at him, remains silent, immobile, refusing to take it. The love is gone, at least from her end.

The feelings are more oblique and messier in Marriage Story, something else that makes the film feel different from the similarly themed works that preceded it. Even as Charlie and Nicole hopelessly watch the demise of their relationship, they’re still connected, however tenuously. At the divorce arbitration, an unpleasant and contentious encounter, Nicole orders Charlie’s lunch, knowing what he wants when he can’t make up his own mind. It’s a telling and touching detail.

A year later, after the divorce proceedings have come and gone, a residual love remains between them, coupled with a renewed appreciation and even a redefined affection that in no way negates the inevitability or finality of the breakup. It’s both unremittingly sad and also, in its exceptional nuance, unprecedented in films about divorce.