When I first saw the trailers (yes, there are two—one from his perspective and one from hers) for Marriage Story, the new Noah Baumbach film about a well-meaning couple who finds themselves fumbling their way through an increasingly bitter divorce and custody battle after deciding their marriage has deteriorated to the point of no return, I was intrigued. I also needed a movie date.
You see, not only am I a ride-or-die fan of Adam Driver, who plays Charlie, a New York playwright who is now divorcing his longtime actress muse Nicole (played by Scarlett Johansson), but I’m also a married mom with a realistic understanding of the fact that marriage is, well, complex. And, yes, while I’m happily betrothed (so far) to my husband of four years, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t watch the trailer without relating to the idea that minor squabbles have the potential to add up to something irreversible and tragic.
Yep, I had to see this film.
So I pitched the idea to my movie-loving spouse: “Want to get a babysitter and go see Marriage Story this weekend? It looks so good.” His reply was swift: “No way. That film will make us want to get a divorce.”
I was taken aback. Sure, it sounded depressing, but the film seemed worthwhile and like something we both—from the safety of our loving comfort zone—could potentially enjoy.
Since it was clear my spouse had no interest, I moved on to my friends: “Does anyone want to see Marriage Story with me?” Their response echoed my husband’s, a chorus of no’s with an increasingly familiar reason: The subject matter simply hits too close to home.
But the good reviews kept pouring in: “Noah Baumbach brings rom-com energy to the agony of divorce,” wrote The Verge. The New York Times said, “Dance me to the end of love,” while NPR touted, “Baumbach has come about as close as you can get to telling a wrenching divorce story with devastation, but no villainy.” It even has a 96 percent critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So I turned to the next logical movie date, Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., a New York City–based family therapist who specializes in marriage and relationship counseling, with an invite. She was in.
That’s how I found myself, on a snowy Monday afternoon post-Thanksgiving, making my way to the recently re-opened Paris Theatre, an iconic location in Midtown Manhattan that, ironically, was saved by Netflix just last month with the opening of this film. (For reference, Marriage Story—a Netflix movie—is in theaters now but has also been available to watch on Netflix since December 6.)
Smerling and I watched side by side as Driver and Johansson’s former intimacy becomes fodder that, thanks to shark-like lawyers, can and will be used against them in a court of law.
At the outset, both Charlie and Nicole are interested in an amicable divorce, but with a TV pilot on the table, Nicole relocates to Los Angeles with their son for a living arrangement that is meant to be temporary. (Their life—and Charlie’s career—is in New York, after all.) But Charlie quickly finds himself on the receiving end of divorce papers and struggles to control the narrative (and the costs) as he makes the argument that his family belongs in New York. It goes without saying that things quickly become contentious as the couple darts from one lawyer’s office to the next, maxing out their credit cards (and airline miles) as they strive to reach a resolution that, no matter which way you look at it, results in a loss.
Dr. Smerling’s take: This is real.
During one particularly tense scene at the office of Johansson’s lawyer—played ruthlessly by Laura Dern—a custody arrangement is hammered out. “I’ve done that. I’ve sat in there as a parent coordinator to ensure everything is done in the best interest of the child,” Smerling explained. “There are ways to make it less litigious than it became in the film. But divorce can take on a life of its own. Your career is not your life. Your friends are not your life. Your children aren’t even your life. The divorce and winning becomes your life, but with divorce, no one wins.”
After the credits rolled, we grabbed a cup of coffee at the theater’s café downstairs.
Mini spoiler alert here, but I feel the need to illuminate what led to Charlie and Nicole’s demise: Nicole was always in Charlie’s shadow. She was a budding star who got caught up with a narcissistic director who was on the rise and prioritized his own ambitions over hers.
But they “were happy once”—a direct quote from the film—so this was my million-dollar question for Smerling: What caused their relationship to unravel and, more important, could it have been saved?
“This is a marriage that died with a whimper, not a bang,” she said, alluding to the fact that it wasn’t one major incident (say, cheating) that led to the end. Instead, it was a series of things that built up over time.
“For Charlie and Nicole, their marriage was too far gone by the time they recognized there was a problem,” Smerling explained. “Everything Nicole vents to her lawyer about are things that a skilled marital therapist could have pointed out and helped bridge the gap before it was too far gone. At the very least, they would have known what the issues were versus being blindsided, which Charlie was."
“Your voice is one half of a marriage,” Smerling continued. “If you don’t find it, you’re going to get angrier and angrier and angrier until one day you walk out or explode.”
There’s even a word for that type of behavior, she said. “Charlie and Nicole are both what we call ‘withdrawers.’ Nicole withdrew and her anger mounted as she met with the lawyer, whereas Charlie withdrew into his work. She never really expressed herself, and he wasn’t getting the love and sex and attention that he needed, so they both felt blocked.”
As for ways to divorce-proof your own marriage? Smerling is clear: You can’t be lazy in a relationship. “If you notice a pattern and you don’t do something about it, you’re complicit. A lot of times, it’s as simple as that.”
I texted my husband when I left the theater to let him know I was on my way home. His joking reply: “So, are we getting a divorce?” I explained to him briefly that the movie had actually left me feeling empowered about our future together and more dedicated than ever to bolstering our communication.
Bottom line: Everyone should see this movie, especially married people.