Marriage Story is a love story about divorce. It is a movie which shows us that no single person is completely faultless. The film picks no sides. Not really, anyways. It just shows us circumstances that can result into things becoming ugly. It shows us how the system is ugly. A notable quote from the movie, is that “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; Divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”
So when Charlie and Nicole’s marriage plays out and they decide to get a divorce, it starts out amicably. Nicole even stays back to finish her season at the theatre company. Charlie’s theatre company. They decide to use no lawyers and they have spoken to their son, Henry, about how his parents while no longer living together, will always be his parents and will always be around. They even write a list of things they love about one another. The list does not once mention anything they like in the other as a partner, but just about them as individuals. And it reflects their mutual love and respect for one another. They both even respect one another as individuals but they realise that they are not compatible. That it is not the question of love, but of knowing you deserve better for yourself.
Nicole still values Charlie’s opinions and she wants to know what he thinks about her pilot that she will be shooting in LA whilst continuing the separation leading up to the divorce. They married while they were still young and it shows how Nicole is looking up to him and seeking his approval. She clearly considers him to be very talented with his direction in his plays. He just tells her he doesn’t watch enough TV to know if the pilot would be any good. He says that while he is watching TV. And we see how this couple is dysfunctional right from the beginning. We see the love, but we cannot ignore the problems. Charlie is too full of himself to be supportive of her career. Or maybe he is jealous. In either case, not the best look on him. It causes Nicole to second guess herself. It feels like it hinders her growth and he restricts her from finding her own potential. Or maybe she’s doing that to herself by not trusting her own instinct. Charlie’s personality has been a part of Nicole’s life for so long now that she finds herself thinking “On the plane, I reread the pilot as if I were Charlie reading it and I thought it was just bad.”
The movie first shows us Nicole’s point of view about what caused her to ask for a divorce from her marriage. She felt like she was losing her individuality and her identity and she just wanted a little piece of Earth that was her own. Charlie did not see Nicole as something separate from himself. He was self-absorbed and self-indulgent. We are told about Charlie’s infidelity while they were still married. Then, it shows us Charlie’s present struggles that arise out of the divorce. Money problems as well as problems with the system that create further stress on Charlie’s limited resources, amplifying his struggle. It makes us sympathise with both at certain points of the story. It shows how during the marriage, it was Nicole who had to compromise on her life, her personality and her goals to make the marriage and the family work and that after the separation, it is Charlie who has to do these things now. The one thing that remains consistent, is that they both agree that neither one is a monster and they both want Henry to have as normal and happy a life as the situation permits.
We see Nicole slowly become the more selfish one as she hires a lawyer despite the two having earlier agreed upon not pursuing any legal counsel. She lets Nora, her attorney, make decisions beneficial to her side of the story without worrying about the issues they will cause for Charlie. She allows Nora to maintain that they are an LA based family and she lets Nora pressure Charlie into moving to LA and hiring an attorney for himself. She knows that Charlie is not as financially comfortable as Nicole and her family is, but she accepts Charlie’s contribution in paying Nora’s fees, which renders him incapable of hiring an equally expensive lawyer for himself. She does not let Charlie stay at their house when he comes to LA and she does not let him join them for Halloween even though the original plan was for Henry to fly out to NYC and celebrate the festival with Charlie there. Even Henry is happier with his life and school and friends in LA and also has been shown at times to want to stay with his mom despite it being Charlie’s turn to take him. And while I agree that these moments are supposed to make us feel sympathy for Charlie, which we undoubtedly do, they should not villainize Nicole.
Nicole has just simply been that person and lived that life and done her share of her sacrifices and just does not wish to live that life anymore. Charlie has not been the perfect husband. He never treated her as someone having the same caliber as himself. Good, but never good enough to be as good as him. When Nora asks Nicole if she wants to continue living in LA, Nicole just looks up at her as if this is the first time it has dawned on her that she can actually choose to do what she wishes, instead of carrying Charlie’s expectations. As if she never made any decisions for herself before this and it feels like an alien concept to her. But one that she likes and feels like she deserves now. Similarly, when Charlie tells Nicole about him winning the MacArthur grant, Nicole is genuinely and sincerely happy for him. But he never truly acknowledges her role to play in it. Charlie genuinely believes that his genius and only that got him his success and recognition and that he only should bask in its glory. He just acknowledges Nicole’s contribution as a formality and never means it. When Charlie talks to Nicole, except for the scenes in which they are arguing, it seems like it is just Charlie thinking out loud and never actually hearing Nicole when she says something.
Noah Baumbach’s screenplay gives us one moment of pure confrontation between the separated couple. Neither one thinks they were at fault in the marriage. Neither one apologises for their mistakes. At this point, we have seen both people as a couple and outside of their couple. We know both are right and both are wrong. They are not bad people. They are just incompatible. And that is nobody’s fault. We also see how they did not wish for things to get as ugly as they have and we understand that it is not their fault as much as it is the lawyers’ in getting them to this estranged position. It comes to the point when both parents use Henry to find out information about each other. After the big blow out, we see Charlie instantly regret his words and we see Nicole comfort him. Because they know each other better than just their worst moments. They both understand that they do not have to hate one another; merely understand that their time together was what it was and that they created something beautiful out of it and to get out of it with respect and civility. The ever-adamant, never-compromising Charlie agrees to move out to LA to be able to spend more time with Henry and Nicole lets Charlie have Henry even though it is her turn to have him.
Nicole just wanted her space and her individuality. Which she has now that Charlie is no longer there to condemn her. Nicole shines into her own. She looks happier. She has just won an Emmy award for directing. She has gotten distance from someone who was toxic to her growth and her ambitions and she has created something beautiful out of it. She has found another guy to be with and she seems happy.
Charlie has finally understood to be more compromising and he has let himself be open to feeling love again. He knows there is no perfect love story and that he needs to allow the bad to pass as much as he needs to embrace the good. The film shows these for both characters very subtly through their songs. Charlie’s case being more subtle than for Nicole.
We are shown an ending scene with Nicole bending down to tie Charlie’s shoe-lace as Charlie leaves with Henry and Nicole leaves with her family. We see them both more cordial and happy. We see Charlie finally getting his hands on what Nicole had written about him in the opening scene of the movie. We see that they have finally both come out of the negatives of their relationship and been successful in still holding on to respect and amicability for the other. We see them better apart than miserable together.