Everyone in the socialverse is taking sides in Charlie and Nicole’s divorce, and they’re not even real people. Since it dropped on Netflix last week, and received six Golden Globe nominations on Monday morning, the film Marriage Story has sparked heated debates about whether writer/director Noah Baumbach is harder on the theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver) or the actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). There’s also a healthy sidebar about whether their lawyers make things better or worse. (Charlie hires two, a softie played by Alan Alda, followed by a pit bull played by Ray Liotta; Nicole’s pit bull is played by Laura Dern.)
My fellow Toronto film critics and I had a spirited debate about this on Sunday afternoon, and I was happy to learn that who sided with whom did not conform to gender lines. Men and women thought Charlie was the hero; men and women thought the opposite. (Both characters are excellent parents; Baumbach is scrupulous about that.) By 3:15 p.m. Monday, 6.9 K people were tweeting their opinions; Rotten Tomatoes had posted 263 reviews, 96 per cent of them fresh; and the film’s climactic argument had become a ubiquitous four-panel meme, featuring dialogue about everything from Jewishness to baby Yoda.
Let’s start with what’s not in dispute: Baumbach, who has made many films including The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Frances Ha and While We’re Young, is the one telling this story. It’s inspired by his divorce from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. He wrote the script, he hired the cast, he put the camera where he wanted it and he oversaw how it was edited and scored. We see this world through his lens, and hear it through his filter. It’s a first-world story about well-off white people, and the stakes are emotional, not physical; no one’s life is in danger.
Beyond that, what audiences are experiencing varies. (Spoilers abound.) Those who think the film is harder on Nicole point to her selfishness. She hires a lawyer though she agreed to mediation. She moves their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) from New York to California, where she’s comfortably ensconced in her mother’s home with her sister nearby. If Charlie wants to see Henry, he has to fly in, stay in drab hotel rooms, or finally rent a cheap apartment. Her reasons for falling out of love sound narcissistic: Charlie never put her first; she felt she’d disappeared. And while Charlie seems genuinely sorrowful about the breakup, Nicole is cooler, less emotional. By the end she’s seeing someone new.
Those who think the film is pro-Nicole start with the obvious: Charlie cheated on her. He defends himself by saying it was just once, and he could have cheated on her a lot more – which is not a defence I’d recommend. He let his career subsume hers, and blithely expected her not to mind. She did most of the child care and relationship maintenance. In the climactic argument, in which voices are raised, snot flies and terrible things are said, Charlie says by far the most terrible: “Every day I wake up and I hope you’re dead.” Immediately, he regrets it, and immediately, she comforts him. Nicole also gets a bonus boost from a speech that Dern’s character delivers, about how society “loves fathers for their fallibilities, but we absolutely don’t accept those same failings in mothers.”
For me, the film is more emotionally with Charlie, but not necessarily for him. We see more scenes of Charlie in disconnect or pain – sitting alone on a hotel sofa dressed as the Invisible Man, waiting to do the second shift on Halloween. Cut off from Nicole’s family, which had become his family. We feel that he’ll always be the one who’s slightly outside of things (that late scene in the upstairs hallway, when all the bedroom doors close and he has nowhere to go, oy). But Baumbach also lets us know that Charlie brought this on himself, that he didn’t fight as hard to keep the marriage alive, and he should feel more regret.
Argue with me if you must, but my evidence is incontrovertible: the two songs that end the film. In the first, Nicole warbles a cheery ditty with her family at her housewarming. In the second, Charlie stands alone at a mic, belting out Being Alive, Stephen Sondheim’s anthem of lost love. The song climbs into him and turns him inside out. By the end we’re holding his bleeding heart in our hands, and we can feel that juddering breath he draws in our own lungs.
Whatever you see in Marriage Story, it has already clicked into place in the line of divorce films that entered our imaginations and our discourse precisely because they don’t take sides, from the la-di-dah repartee of The Philadelphia Story to Annie Hall’s dead shark, from the vicious brawls of The War of the Roses to the sad tap dance in Blue Valentine. (For most of its running time, Kramer vs. Kramer does take a side, until Meryl Streep shows up and flips the argument.)
All this dispute means there’s no real dispute: Baumbach has structured a story in which both leads are both right and wrong, sinned against and sinning, because that’s just much more interesting and useful and memorable than making one person win and the other lose. He’s made a film that damns the divorce industrial complex, and lauds it for making people get their priorities in order. He shows us the misery in a marriage ending, and also the hope in two lives starting anew.
Marriage Story would be the lesser for it if Baumbach picked a side, because it’s about characters, and no good character should be perfect, just as no character should always be wrong. We don’t want puppets or polemics, we want people – people wounded by slights, and cheered by small kindnesses, and baffled by where love goes when it disappears. Relationships are a mess, but they’re a human mess. We’re debating about this one because it’s all of ours.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.