Divorce is the Judas of relationships. It betrays our happy endings.
Oh, we know full well that not all endings are happy. Our lives come freighted with sadness. Our lives are filled with goodbyes.
Marriage has its goodbye, too—but it’s designed to end only when we do. The institution itself was built to last. For better or worse, we say. For richer or poorer. ’Til death do us part.b A happy ending.
When Nicole and Charlie exchanged their vows, they thought it’d be forever. He made her feel alive. She made him feel special. She was the famous star of a teen sex comedy back then, he a little-known director of avant-garde plays. But together, they were something else.
They made that something in New York City. And if his star rose a bit faster than hers, it didn’t matter that much. (Or, Nicole confesses, it shouldn’t matter.) Offstage, they made lives for themselves—and a baby, too. And even if little Henry struggled to read and suffered the occasional nightmare, they both loved him dearly.
But after so many years together, do they still feel the same about each other?
Charlie’s so self-centered. Nicole’s so messy. Why don’t you understand me? Why can’t you listen? The words they should say—the words they long to say—lie buried in the detrius of anger and recrimination. Warm embraces turn to cold kisses on the cheek in a garden they made themselves, a garden grown cold and dark.
For their relationship, a happy ending seems out of the question.
What looms instead is just the end.
We get to know Charlie and Nicole, and we like them both. Neither is perfect, of course, and each bears some responsibility for the sorry state of their marriage. But underneath the hurt and, sometimes, the vitriol, we believe they still care about each other—and they both love their little boy.
But perhaps the most important message we can take away from Marriage Story is quite simple: Divorce is horrible. And the agony it inflicts doesn’t just sequester itself to husband and wife: Like ripples in a pool, the misery reaches children, family and friends.
Charlie, we learn, has had an affair with his stage manager, which doesn’t help him and Nicole to stay together. Charlie blames the affair on Nicole’s sudden sexual reticence: We learn that they hadn’t slept together for a year when Charlie began his on-the-side relationship. And when Charlie rejects the stage manager’s advances during his separation from Nicole, the manager finds the whole thing rather confusing. They “did it” when Charlie and Nicole were married, which they shouldn’t have done. “Now that you’re not married, shouldn’t we … be doing it?” We hear other references to the affair during divorce proceedings.
Nicole—motivated, it seems, by both revenge and a desire to explore her newfound sexual freedom—makes a very specific sexual request of a casual lover in the heat of the moment. An actor advises Charlie to be promiscuous, too—with “as many people as you can. Men. Women.”
Nicole’s father was apparently gay, and we hear how Nicole’s mom once caught him in a sexual act with a hotel porter. (Mom feels bad that she made such a big deal about it.) Nicole confesses to her divorce lawyer that when she first met Charlie, “the talking was better than the sex.”
Nicole kisses a new beau. Charlie quizzes Henry about whether his mother’s dating or not. Nicole’s divorce layer, Nora Fanshaw, seems to lightly flirt with Charlie and wears outfits designed to flatter her curves. In flashback, we see a glimpse of the sexy movie scene that made Nicole famous. Nicole’s character begins to lift up a shirt: While the scene is stopped before we see anything critical, we learn (in several conversations) that she flashed the camera in the movie itself.
Charlie, reluctantly demonstrating for a relationship evaluator a private joke that he and Henry share, moves a small box knife down his forearm. He explains to the evaluator that he retracts the blade when he does it for Henry, and Henry thinks it’s pretty funny. But while demonstrating this “joke,” Charlie actually forgets the blade is open. The resulting wound bleeds like crazy (to both tragic and comic effect), and Charlie eventually collapses in the kitchen with a wad of paper towels wrapped around his arm.
An argument between Nicole and Charlie escalates—culminating in one wishing the other was dead.
Nearly 40 f-words and more than a dozen s-words—including some uses by 8-year-old Henry. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—” “d–k,” t-ts” and an extremely crude reference to the male anatomy. God’s name is misused five times, four with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused three times.
One night, when Charlie and Nicole are getting along relatively well, the couple puts Henry to bed and tucks him in. Nicole slips a bit on one of the stairs and Charlie gently grabs her arm—a gesture of long-practiced intimacy—and they both chuckle. Nicole blames the wine.
That moment becomes fodder in divorce court, when Charlie’s lawyer paints Nicole as unconscionably drunk while putting Henry to bed. To her own lawyer, Nicole admits that she’ll sometimes split a bottle of wine with a friend if they order one for dinner. (Otherwise, she insists, she sticks with just a glass with dinner.) She also confesses that she’s used drugs (marijuana and cocaine, and possibly others) in the not-so-distant past.
Both Nicole and Charlie drink, and we see a few gatherings of Charlie’s theater troupe in bars. We hear that Charlie grew up in a home where alcohol was abused (and Charlie was, too.)
If there’s anything worse than divorce, this movie suggests, it’s divorce lawyers. “The system rewards bad behavior,” Nora tells Nicole: The stronger the accusations, the wilder the demands, the more likely you are to actually get what you want. And this turns divorces that could be settled amicably without lawyers into bitter, vitriolic feuds.
Charlie and Nicole both fall prey to the system, and two people who used to love each other begin to think the worst of each other instead. Regrets turn into recriminations, and blame is bandied about like a tetherball. The time a child spends with each parent can become a massively contentious issue: “Many people fight for that time and don’t even use it,” Nora says. “They just want to win.”
And so it goes with Charlie and Nicole: Charlie fights to bring Henry back to New York with him, despite Henry’s clear preference for his Los Angeles school, friends and environment.
“He needs to know that I fought for him!” Charlie tells his lawyer.
“He’ll know,” the lawyer tries to say, but to little avail.
Elsewhere, we also hear quite a bit about Henry’s bathroom habits.
“Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best,” one divorce lawyer says. “Divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”
A couple of good, caring people are shown at their worst here. And while Marriage Story offers many moments of uncomfortable levity, the laughs aren’t enough to obscure the central tragedy at its core.
Marriage Story is a somewhat autobiographical movie—one that director Noah Baumbach wrote in the aftermath of his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. As such, you might think that the film would suggest that this fictional divorce—the broken relationship so effectively painted by Baumbach—was sad, but inevitable. And maybe, to some, that could be the takeaway here.
But for me, watching Marriage Story, the comic tragedy that unfolds comes with a more tragic component: An inevitable What if?
What if Charlie could’ve seen how selfish he could be and made steps to correct it? What if Nicole could’ve given him another chance? What if? What if?
Marriage Story feels like a bundle of missed opportunities—tears hidden when they should’ve been shown, angry words swallowed instead of spoken.
“Maybe if we stayed married, it could be better?” Nicole tearfully asks divorce lawyer Nora.
Wrong person to ask.
“What we’re doing is an act of hope,” Nora tells her.
But it’s not.
We tend to think of hope as an emotion. A wish. “I hope it’ll be a better day tomorrow.” “I hope I win the lottery.” But in his biography Paul, N.T. Wright tells us that in the Apostle’s writings, hope was much more significant.
“Hope could be, and often was, a dogged and deliberate choice when the world seemed dark,” he writes. “It depended not on a feeling about the way things were or the way they were moving, but on faith, faith in the One God.”
“‘Hope’ in this sense is not a feeling,” Wright continues. “It is a virtue.”
Paul’s commitment to God is not as wildly different to a marriage as we might at first think. When he dedicated himself to serving Christ, it was for better or worse, for richer or poorer. If we’re familiar with the Scriptures at all, we know that Paul’s mortal life would’ve likely been much easier had he just separated himself from God—or, at the very least, from his zeal to tell the world about Him.
But Paul didn’t “hope”, or wish, for his trials to be over. He called the Almighty the “God of hope” in Romans 15. “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer,” he writes a few chapters earlier. The words hope and tribulation are separated by just a handful of letters.
Obviously, placing our hope in God is very much different than placing our hope in a spouse. Anyone who’s been married any length of time knows that our husbands and wives fall far short of perfection.
And yet to push through even the most difficult moments of marriage with hope—despite the pain, despite the tribulation—that’s a beautiful thing. It’s a virtue.
Obviously, Charlie’s infidelity casts a pall over his marriage with Nicole. But we see in context that his unfaithfulness wasn’t actually the biggest issue with their marriage. Instead, we’re left with the impression of a lingering love—love sullied by a whole bunch of problems to be sure—is still there.
That love caused Charlie and Nicole to make a lifelong commitment to each other. That love was still worth fighting for. And had they fought for their love as much and as hard as they fought for custody, maybe Marriage Story would’ve been about a marriage … not a divorce.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.