Marriage Story tracks the dissolution of the marriage between New York theater director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a former film actress who stars in his plays but leaves with their eight-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson) for a role in a television show in California. The point of view is from the camera, so viewers see his side, her side, and the shared and accumulated truth of both their qualities and their faults.
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019) could just as well be called Divorce Story and that title might better prepare us for what actually happens in the movie. Within ten minutes, most of the happy moments of their marriage have come and gone, the emotional violence and explosion of divorce proceedings have begun, and we are left with the complexity of their coming apart—individually and as a couple—as we wonder and watch where the pieces will land.
Rather than relying on huge events that both explain Charlie and Nicole’s love and the breaking up of their relationship, Marriage Story relies more on details, quick actions, small happenings, a slice here, a twist there, something left unexpressed, a brief gesture—the tiny accretions and imperceptible erosions of long term relationships that won’t last.
Below are 25 of those disintegrating moments in chronological order [with spoilers]:
At their apartment Charlie shares his notes of feedback/criticism to Nicole from the last theater performance. His second note is that she was pushing for emotion and was unable to cry on stage. She explains herself and flatly tells Charlie goodnight. As soon as she is out of sight, she cries profusely, perhaps over the realization that this will be the final note she receives from Charlie and that this will be the first of many last times with Charlie. Or perhaps because she was hoping and needing some note of praise from him instead. Maybe it is the emotional toll of knowing she is preparing to leave Charlie.
We also wonder why she can’t cry in front of Charlie. Is she emotionally closed off, in general, or is Charlie someone who has criticized or been so cruel to her she can’t drop her guard with him anymore?
Laura Dern as Nora Fanshaw (IMDB)
Nicole is at divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw’s office. Nora (Laura Dern) asks her to tell her story and she launches into a monologue providing both her pre-Charlie history and her life while married to him. This is in direct contrast to a scene we saw earlier.
In a male mediator’s office, Nicole is uncomfortable and refuses to read a letter she wrote about Charlie’s good qualities. It may seem ironic that an attorney’s office can function as a safe space, but in Nora’s office Nicole even feels comfortable enough to cry.
And we get the revelation that Nicole suspects Charlie of cheating, which is later confirmed.
Nicole’s mother, Sandra (Julie Hagerty), tells Nicole that she and Charlie have a relationship independent of his marriage with Nicole. Although perhaps a bit disloyal to Nicole, Sandra’s declaration is a meaningful show of support for Charlie who has no family allies and it is an expression of impossible optimism that while divorce is on the horizon, somehow all the other related relationships will remain untouched and intact.
Nicole plans to have her sister, Cassie (Merritt Wever), serve Charlie with divorce papers once Charlie arrives. As she tells everyone where to go, what to say, how to act, we realize Nicole is, in essence, directing them.
This connects with an earlier scene in which, after running through some setups at the television program shoot, Nicole receives compliments for her ideas and a conversation begins about her possibly doing some directing. Also, we see just how much she has picked up about directing from Charlie. This continues even after Charlie is served with papers.
Once served, he ironically looks to Nicole for direction and asks what he should do now.
Charlie announces he has won a MacArthur Grant. Although unintended, it’s as if somehow Charlie has unknowingly found a way to upstage Nicole’s big news (i.e., the divorce) with huge news of his own. Viewers realize a one-two punch is impending.
Not only will Charlie be served, but on what should be one of the happiest days of his life and a time of great personal triumph, he is about to be blindside, ambushed, and his life blown to pieces. On a day they should be celebrating, instead they will be separating.
Post-service, Charlie and Nicole lie in bed on either side of Henry while Charlie reads the end of Stuart Little, a book about a quest to reconnect with someone that Stuart does not know he will ever find again.
Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.
It’s a poignant moment suggesting that as wrong as the moment feels right now for Charlie and as difficult as the path ahead for him is, he will be okay.
Nicole asks Charlie, “Where are you staying?” The questions surprises the still-stunned Charlie. We suspect that Nicole is not so much asking Charlie out of curiosity and concern as she is telling him that he cannot stay with them. He had obviously planned on doing so prior to the service of papers.
As he leaves, they share a quick limp hug in direct contrast to his earlier affectionate greeting.
Charlie exits, stick his hand back inside, and flips off all the lights in the room, leaving Nicole in the dark. It’s a passive-aggressive maneuver perhaps in response to the final injury and insult of being booted out and forced to a hotel.
Charlie notices that Nicole has changed her hair. It’s shorter now and he tells her that he prefers it longer. She laughs and says “it’s just absurd.” Charlie seems confused and asks if everything is okay. He still hasn’t realized that his opinions on most topics—especially something as individualized as hairstyle—regarding Nicole no longer matter. Certainly, it’s the least of their issues right now.
Hair is a sub-theme that appears throughout the film. Perhaps the surname Barber is a tipoff.
In a conference room, Nicole, Charlie, and their respective legal teams work on a settlement. When it comes time to order lunch, Charlie has difficulty making a selection, apologizes, and Nicole steps in and orders for him: “Charlie will have the Greek salad but with olive and lemon oil instead of the Greek dressing.”
This action is not Nicole taking control and running over Charlie; it’s her knowing Charlie’s tastes, stepping in, and helping him out. When she orders for him, the screenplay says she does this “reflexively”. Charlie says, “Okay” and nods.
It’s a subtle reminder, too, that as focused on himself as Charlie is and as much as he is used to making decisions, he needs Nicole’s help and benefits from her input ,whether it’s something as simple as lunch or more weighty, as her ideas, words, and contributions making their way into Charlie’s work. She told her attorney, Nora, about her presence in his work during their first conversation.
During the group legal meeting, the subject of Charlie’s award comes up. Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), his attorney, calls Charlie a genius and tousles his hair like Charlie is a child. It’s too familiar a gesture and unintentionally but understandably demeaning to Charlie, who is obviously made uncomfortable by the action.
Charlie and the audience realize that the very thing that attracts Charlie to Bert—his friendly and familiar attitude—also means Bert may not be the right person for this job. Charlie likes Bert because he treats him like a person, but he starts to realize he also needs someone that will respect him as a client.
Alan Alda as Bert Spitz (IMDB)
Charlie and Bert have a private discussion during the meeting with Nora and Nicole. Bert encourages him to give up on trying to get Henry back to New York. Bert’s heart is in the right place. Rather than dragging out the pain and burning up further resources just to get to the same result, Bert makes the human and ethical suggestion of conceding on New York.
Charlie cannot think of a life outside of New York, nor can he imagine being so far from Henry. His concern is that he is on the verge of losing the chance of having any real relationship with his son. Bert tells him that maybe Henry will go to college on the East Coast. That comment seems to bring Charlie to a point of reckoning.
First, he realizes he may not have a constant relationship with his son until he is an adult—and at that point Henry will have his own friends and activities. They may not happen at all if Henry goes to college or stays settled on the West Coast.
Charlie also recognizes that, for better or worse, Bert is not a fighter. This is the last we will see of Bert. As Charlie will later explain to Nicole when he hires the hard-ass Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) that he previously rejected as too expensive and tough, he needs his “own asshole”.
There’s also a rambling joke from Bert involving a hairdresser if you’re tracking the hair subtheme.
Earlier, we learned that Nicole cut the family’s hair. Charlie needs a haircut. Nicole offers to give cut it for him, and he agrees. For a brief moment, things are normal.
There’s also the irony that an act of severance, a cutting away, brings them together. We’ll see this idea reappear.
(© Netflix / IMDB)
Charlie goes to Nicole’s place to help her shut her driveway gate, which has been affected by rolling blackouts. Together, with her on one side and him on the other, they roll it completely shut. It’s a powerful metaphor for the contradictions of the divorce process: two people on opposite sides working together to cut themselves off from one another. The scene also demonstrates what they can accomplish when they work together.
Unfortunately, in this instance, they’re separating themselves from one another. It’s notable, too, that Charlie has Henry with him on his side, so the cut. On a symbolic level this previews Charlie keeping Henry with him in New York, which is what Charlie has been working for.
However, as the gate closes, Charlies doesn’t look very happy. Perhaps he thinks or rethinks how cutting himself and Henry off from Nicole would actually feel. The gate sequence comes right before they appear in court.
Nicole meets with Charlie in his apartment to talk about their marriage, their divorce, and what happened in court. She mentions that Henry’s teacher wants to meet with them to “rule out everything, you know, with his reading.” Charlie dismisses this by saying Henry is “over-anxious” and “just wants it too much” and then points out how good Henry is at math, as if that automatically disqualifies him from having a reading difficulty. Of course, it’s possible Henry has a learning disability, such as dyslexia.
This demonstrates how Charlie dismisses any indication of trouble that he doesn’t want to be true, and it shows how Henry and his needs are getting lost in the divorce. (For what it’s worth Charlie does buy a Scrabble game later on, so maybe he realizes Henry needs help.)
For displays of Nicole’s ineffective parenting, consider examples in which she bribes Henry with money or presents to encourage a desired behavior. Nicole wants to keep Henry happy. Henry wants to keep his present. However, both are failing to address some of his finer needs.
Nora gives a monologue in her office to Nicole, explaining the unfairness and difference in societal expectations of mother and fathers and their roots in Judeo-Christian structures beginning with God and Mary. “Fathers were expected to be silent and absent,” but mothers must be “perfect” and present.
If there is one scene—along with the initial meeting with Nicole—that best makes the case for Dern’s Oscar award, this is it.
The legal situation continues to escalate and Charlie finds an independent observer, appointed by the court, paying him and Henry a funny and disastrous home visit. Towards the end, Henry mentions some sort of trick Charlie performs with an X-acto knife in which he pretends to cut himself. He demonstrates it for the evaluator but discovers afterward that he failed to retract the blade and has cut himself. He helps see her out while bleeding profusely and refusing help.
It’s obvious why Charlie wants to minimize the injury in front of the observer, but the incident is a metaphor for so many other things: Charlie’s denial that a situation is as bad as it really as it is, the attempt to put small, thin adhesive bandages on what probably needs stitches, the cutting open and bloodletting of his life and person, and the draining of essential resources.
Like hair, blood is another sub-theme in Marriage Story. For example, Charlie cuts his hand installing a car seat and we later see the blood on a parking garage ticket. After that, he helps Henry decode the word “blood” from a billboard.
Charlie sits silently in a barbershop getting his hair trimmed. It’s another small but hurtful indication of the ways that Nicole is no longer in his life and probably never will be again.
Charlie arrives at a bar in New York where members of his theater are gathered. He grabs and surprises the first, kisses the second on the head, skips over and completely ignores the woman he had an affair with, Mary Ann (Brooke Bloom) who sits in the middle, and hugs the fourth person.
Whether Charlie practices self-punishment by denying himself whatever short or long range pleasure he might get with her, here he tries to punish her for their affair by shunning her. Or maybe he hopes that he may have a longshot chance getting Nicole back, and must avoid Mary Ann.
The message is clear: whatever it may hold, Charlie’s future does not include Mary Ann.
Charlie enters Sandra’s house and sees Nicole’s boyfriend Carter Mitchum (Mark O’Brien), Sandra, and Henry playing together. It’s obvious that Carter is bonding with Henry and Sandra is bonding with Carter. In short, the California family unit has reconfigured, stabilized, and Henry is something of an outsider now.
Oddly, Nicole kisses him on the cheek. However, the kiss is more like what one would give a family member. It serves as confirmation that everyone clearly recognizes and respects the new reality and so there is no chance of it being misunderstood.
Charlie has a place, but it is on the fringes.
Adam Driver as Charlie (IMDB)
Carter announces that Nicole has been nominated for an Emmy. Charlie responds that she’s a great actress and Nicole clarifies that the Emmy is for directing, which clearly stuns Charlie, but he offers a sincere and happy congratulations. This is an example of how Charlie continues to underestimate Nicole’s capabilities and aspirations. Nicole is not only staying and surviving in California; she is progressing and thriving.
Charlie, on the other hand, has experienced a professional downturn because, as he previously explained—and blamed on the travelling back and forth—his play closed on Broadway.
It’s Halloween and everyone is getting into their costumes. Charlie doesn’t have a costume, and says, “I don’t need to be anything.” Nicole suggests he can be a ghost. This is, in effect, what he has become. He has no real impact on Nicole or Henry. They have moved on and made new lives without him.
This also calls back to the previous Halloween when Charlie was the Invisible Man. Also, Charlie theater company is called Exit Ghost. The term “exit ghost” is a stage direction in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Hamlet and Macbeth are about dysfunctional family situations, and Julius Caesar concerns a conspiracy aimed at assassinating a dictator. You can draw your own conclusions about the connections among those plays and Marriage Story.
Carter dressed as Paul McCartney, Henry as Ringo Starr, Nicole as John Lennon (she dressed David Bowie the previous Halloween) and Sandra as George Harrison, dress up as the Beatles from the Sgt. Pepper era. The Beatles, of course, were both made and overcome by their incredible talent. Arguably, Lennon and McCartney were its two most gifted members, so it’s especially fitting that Nicole is Lennon and Charlie, who would presumably have been McCartney, has his place taken by Carter.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the first album that the Beatles released after deciding not to tour any further. That’s significant, since Charlie will soon announce he is moving to Los Angeles.
While everyone changes into their costumes, Charlie suddenly announces that he has taken a residency at UCLA so he will be in California for a while. Nicole tells him, “That’s great.” She seems surprised and somewhat unsure how she feels. There is a sad irony here, because if Charlie had taken an earlier opportunity for a residency at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, perhaps they wouldn’t have gotten divorced. Certainly, returning to California would have been a key step in preserving the marriage.
It is not too little, but it is too late.
After giving his news, Charlie, clutching his ghost costume, notices that the photos on Sandra’s walls have changed. In an earlier scene there were photos including Charlie. Those have been replaced.
He visage is no longer amongst this living family.
As Charlie leaves with Henry asleep in his arms, Nicole stops Charlie and ties his shoelace for him. It’s a small act of concern and tenderness. They are perhaps beyond the most difficult part of their divorce—the legal, physical, and emotional process of separating—and can begin to move forward on some level.
The shoelaces, although literally one string, represent two things of equal importance that function most strongly when tied together. This perhaps this is now truer of Nicole and Charlie as parents, rather than as a couple.
Either way, literally and figuratively, the loose ends are tied up.