If You Cried At Marriage Story, You’re Missing The Point

Adam Driver might be the internet’s boyfriend – but his character in Marriage Story is controlling and a bad husband.

Marriage Story

by Rosamund Dean |
Updated on

When Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama Marriage Story arrived on Netflix this weekend, the internet convulsed with sobs. ‘It hit me like a bus,’ wailed one viewer on Twitter, another adding ‘what have you done to me???’ with many crying emojis.

I do not have a heart of stone, and cry at almost any Christmas advert so, when I settled down to watch Marriage Story, I fully expected to be in pieces by the end.

But the tears did not come, and here’s why: the film is an empowering tale of a woman extricating herself from a controlling relationship. (Minor spoilers ahead.)

Adam Driver is Charlie, a New York theatre director whose plays mostly star his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). She longs to direct, which he says she can do ‘on the next one’, but the opportunity never comes. Meanwhile, he criticises her performances, her hair and is disparaging about a TV pilot that she has been offered.

‘You don’t think it’s bad, do you?’ she asks him, seeking reassurance.

Charlie and Nicole have a young son but, perhaps because I’m the child of divorce myself, I know that he is way better off with his parents living separately

‘I don’t ever watch TV, so I can’t tell,’ he replies, barely looking up from the TV that he is literally watching at the time.

Oh, and also he’s having an affair, but that seems to be the least important of the litany of reasons why their marriage has fallen apart.

I get that divorce is sad, no matter how necessary it is, because it symbolises the dashing of hopes and, of course, means the break-up of a family. Charlie and Nicole have a young son but, perhaps because I’m the child of divorce myself, I know that he is way better off with his parents living separately, rather than sticking together for his sake but hating each other for it. He gets to move to California, near his cousins, and appears to thrive.

So why did so many people find the film so heart-breaking?

First, Adam Driver is the internet’s boyfriend, and his innate likability blinds us to his character’s flaws in the same way that Ryan Gosling made us enjoy La La Land, despite the fact that he was playing our ex from uni who loved mansplaining music.

Second, Noah Baumbach is an extremely talented and nuanced writer and director, who acknowledges the grey areas. Charlie may be a crap husband, but he’s a good person, and a brilliant dad. Nicole may be right to get out of the marriage, but should she have hired an expensive hard-nosed lawyer after they had agreed to divorce amicably? Probably not.

(Having said that, I’d pay any amount of money to have Laura Dern on my side, in a chic shift dress with some snappy words of wisdom.)

The film is said to be inspired by Baumbach’s divorce from first wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he has a son. If that’s the case it’s interesting that, while Charlie does not support his wife’s directing ambitions in Marriage Story, Baumbach is now in a relationship with Lady Bird and Little Women director Greta Gerwig (the couple had a son earlier this year). Perhaps he has changed or – more likely – perhaps it’s simply the case that nothing is ever black and white.


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