Marriage Story shows that divorce isn't fun. It is not a best picture.
This article is part of Esquire's Oscars series in which we consider if each Best Picture nominee at 2020 Academy Awards should or should not take home the night's highest honor. Read the rest of the Oscars series here.
It’s a dreadful thing to talk about your parents’ divorce. You try to be quippy. Yeah, it sucked! You snort out a little torrent of air, which passes for a laugh, as you squash down the instinct for melodrama. But it’s old news! It’s not that you don’t want to talk about the divorce. It is the biggest thing that ever happened to you; from the moment one of your parents moved out, or moved to the basement before moving out, your life fell to bits and then mustered itself back into two warring factions. These cousins, that bedroom; mom’s weekend, dad’s vacation; Christmas morning, Christmas afternoon.
It’s that you could talk about this divorce, this life-changing, paradigm-altering, universe-shattering event that you and your family survived, for an hour. Two hours. Twenty-four. You’ve never written poetry, but the poetry you’d write about this divorce would split a soul clean in half. The stories slither through your intestines, just waiting to burst forth from your mouth in an onslaught of sticky self-pity. And yet, no one would give a damn. Because in the end, you realize, your parents’ divorce story isn’t all that interesting to anyone but you. The divorce ... ended in divorce. No shockers there. And to you, anyone else’s divorce will never be interesting enough. Even if it’s directed by the “poet laureate of marital strife.” Even if Scarlett Johansson acts her heart out portraying it on screen. Even if Adam Driver punches a wall.
The idea behind Netflix’s Best Picture-nominated movie Marriage Story is brilliant: Take something as commonplace as divorce—they say 50 percent of marriages end in it—and drill down into its banalities to portray the simple adult tragedy that is falling out of love: papers served in manilla envelopes, lunches spent in litigation, the infamous hand-off of the shared child. But then you have to watch it. And if you are watching it having already watched your own parents survive a divorce and its aftermath, like I have, then exactly nothing of what happens on screen will surprise you, except perhaps how decent these two people are to each other. Marriage Story is divorce lite, separation without salt. And even though low-cal movies have won Best Picture awards before (I mean, Green Book? Lord.), they at least revealed something about ourselves (I mean, like how a lot of Academy voters love a white savior). All Marriage Story did was reveal a blueprint for a pretty nice, pretty harmless divorce, all things considered. It’s a PSA.
Marriage Story was dead in the water for me the second the memes started. Those damn memes. They gave away the best part. Charlie, all eleven feet of him, shout-crying while Nicole yell-cries. The memes promise this fight as a climax of unflinching emotion, a take-no-prisoners screaming match that’ll haunt your waking nightmares. But as Nicole and Charlie finally shout at each other what they really feel—she’s “pathetic,” he’s “selfish”—making clear that they don’t love each other like they used to, I could only think, duh. They just acted it out more succinctly than mom and dad ever did, and they’re also cooler than mom and dad were, too. And then, that’s it. One big fight, where human empathy gets the last word in a truly touching moment, but one that felt, to me, fantastical.
The kid in Marriage Story, whose age is totally ambiguous, goes through a bit of a phase—nothing too terrible, nothing too dramatic. He doesn’t like doing a full night of double Halloweens because it isn’t fun, and he only wants to do fun things. Fair! He asks a few questions, makes some friends, is moody but generally copes. He is me in this screenplay, and he will be fine, as long as his parents don’t make him wear weird Halloween costumes. It is the best case scenario.
Nicole drinks too much wine one night in a scene that will very obviously come back to bite her, which it does. Charlie is late one afternoon, and that comes back too, obviously. In divorce, as anyone who’s been intimately involved with divorce knows, every fault is fair game, so you also know exactly how the faults of these two married people in the first half of the movie will reappear. It’s predictable.
And later, in the Marriage Story divorce court, hurtful things are hurled between the parties, but they’re hurled by lawyers, not the people about to get the divorce. Charlie and Nicole sit there in near silence, looking guilty that these hurtful things are seeing the light of day, but it’s not really their fault, is it? Neither of them actually thinks the other is a bad parent. Their lawyers—one of whom has a strong I Am Woman Hear Me Roar attitude, which feels a bit chummy, and the other who embodies I Am Man Hear Me Bluster, which checks out—are the ones saying this. Nicole and Charlie had that one fight, but they’re done shouting now. Unbridled meanness, side-stepped again.
Marriage Story’s divorce takes place over what appears to be a breezy year and change. A year! Who ever heard of such a forgiving timeline? It’s backed by jaunty piano music. Nicole is willing to get physically close enough to her ex to tie his shoe, and Charlie is willing to be in the presence of his ex’s new boyfriend for one minute going on three minutes. Both parents have jobs. Both are able to pursue their creative interests instead of having to hustle to make ends meet. One letter gets read, everyone has a good cry. The kid seems A-okay.
Which is all to say that I expected Marriage Story to pluck me out of my happy little life—the one in which my parents’ divorce is 20 years stale, the one in which I haven’t yet had to interrogate my own relationship-adjacent hang-ups because I’m too young to care—to jam me down its gullet, mash me up, and regurgitate me back onto my couch as a sopping heap of raw innards. Because I have my divorce stories, too. I get it. When my parents lived in different states, they’d meet halfway at a McDonald’s somewhere in between and let my sister and me loose in the PlayPlace while they handed over overnight bags. I’ve seen correspondences between my parents, written pre-divorce and mid-divorce, that have broken my heart in a million more ways than those letters meant to ease Charlie and Nicole’s separation. I’ve heard my mom’s side of the story and my dad’s side of the story, which don’t match, but that’s not really the point. (See? Melodrama.)
But you know what? Marriage Story depicted a nice divorce. A pleasant one. By getting into the nitty-gritty of day-to-day divorce, it performed a sweetened rendition of a showtune as old as time. So not only could it not surpass my own memories, the most personal things I have, but watching Marriage Story, it confirmed to me that most divorce is nothing special at all, especially for everyone who’s already gone through it, because it couldn’t possibly matter more than their own divorce.
I guess Marriage Story can be seen as a warning that divorce isn’t fun. In its most broad terms, divorce is universal, and therefore uninteresting. But the specifics are uniquely interesting to every family, and capturing that paradox is difficult—how something can be so normalized yet so traumatic. Noah Baumbach's movie about two wealthy, successful, white people is not a universal tale that should be used to paint every divorce, not even the bland divorces of other wealthy, successful, white people. Nor is it a movie that brings a new perspective to Hollywood.
They say 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. That makes for a lot of people who already knew how this story was going to play out. I wouldn’t make anyone sit through two hours plus of my tragic little tale when they know it so well themselves. I wouldn’t call it ground-breaking when it isn’t, at least anywhere besides in my own head. But it seems the Academy might.
In the end, all I can say is, thank you for listening to me while I talked a little bit about my divorce story. I know it’s very personal, and I think it’s a remarkable one, but you were probably bored.