With Laura Dern earning the best supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal of a divorce lawyer in a couple’s “scorched earth” divorce, movie lovers are asking whether “Marriage Story” is what really happens when nice people divorce.
To begin, the title, Marriage Story is a bit askew.
Marriage Story is less about a mostly botched marriage than about divorce gone horribly awry. The plot portrays two fundamentally decent people who allow their divorce proceedings to devolve into toxic combat.
This “Marriage Story” would be better titled “Divorce War”
A lot goes wrong in the protagonists’ divorce process, and some of the mess is due to bad advice from the lawyer for the playwright and director husband, Charlie. (More on that below.) But ultimately the divorce, like the marriage, disintegrates because Charlie and the actress wife, Nicole, fail to confront two priority questions:
- Where does each of them need to live
- What does that mean for co-parenting their adorable young son, Henry?
For her work and happiness Nicole needs to live in California. Charlie needs (or at least wants) for his work and happiness to live in Brooklyn. How would that work if they stay together? Can they co-parent a child while living on opposite coasts?
Instead of confronting their dilemma, Nicole moves to California for a short-term role in a television series pilot.
Of course, Nicole hopes her pilot will become a series, her job will be extended and she will stay in California, maybe for several years. When Nicole moves, she and Charlie surely know, but simply ignore, their longer-term bi-coastal predicament.
Charlie agrees to Henry’s temporary move with Nicole from Brooklyn to LA. He must be in denial about Nicole’s intention to return, especially because the couple is already meeting with a divorce mediator when Nicole leaves.
Nicole consults an aggressive lawyer, who will help Nicole navigate the hardest of all divorce questions: what happens when one parent wants to relocate beyond the other parent’s ability to exercise frequent parenting time?
Charlie responds by hiring his own viper attorney, and an already difficult case becomes a nightmare.
“Marriage Story” realistically portrays how hurt feelings can overwhelm the good nature of nice people who once loved each other.
The movie faults the lawyers and legal process
But Noah Baumbach’s film unfairly faults the lawyers and legal process for Nicole and Charlie’s devolution from peaceful coexistence to warring litigants.
The film exaggerates the unprofessional personality traits of both lawyers. Nicole’s female lawyer is overly cozy with Nicole and her courtroom demeanor is almost absurdly.
Charlie’s male lawyer misses his winning legal argument, focusing instead on ugly, destructive assertions about Nicole’s character. Both lawyers interrupt, shout and speak over one another in a mostly fictional out-of-control courtroom scene.
Charlie’s lawyer should have advised Charlie that New York has exclusive jurisdiction under state and federal law to decide custody issues concerning Henry. Charlie should return to New York and immediately file a New York custody case.
The New York court might or might not order Henry’s return to New York while it considers Nicole’s request to move with Henry to California.
Either way, the New York court will consider whether it’s in Henry’s best interest to live in New York or California. Each parent’s prior involvement in Henry’s care will affect the outcome. The court will also consider the location of Charlie’s friends, school, medical providers and extended family.
A primary factor will be whether the court, or preferably the parties themselves, can craft a parenting plan that meets both parents’ professional needs and allows both Charlie and Nicole maximum parental involvement in Charlie’s life. Who will travel and how often?
Nicole and Charlie’s mutual pent-up bitterness in “Marriage Story” are unfortunately real.
Separation and divorce bring out the worst in people
Especially when the stakes are as high as the right to care for your child.
Where the film strays to fiction is in its suggestion that lawyers behaving badly create, or at least stimulate, the natural acrimony unleashed when repressed memories of a former partner’s infractions rise to the surface in the divorce narrative.
To the extent that the film blames the lawyers for Charlie and Nicole’s growing rancor, “Marriage Story” is largely fiction.
Lawyers don’t teach people to attack their partners
Uncoupling partners are responsible for their own co-parenting communication and their own behavior.
No matter how awful the relationship, good parents don’t engage in behavior that results in pain for their children.
Despite the caricature lawyer portrayals in “Marriage Story”, divorcing couples should have lawyers.
Divorcing spouses should understand their legal rights and legal obligations. A fair and amicable divorce agreement should result from informed negotiation.
In order to understand the legal landscape against which couples cooperatively craft agreements that work for their specific needs, they should have advocates to explain best-case and worst-case outcomes.
Negotiation can work through mediation, lawyer meetings or written exchanges. Parents with competent lawyers and a commitment to be co-parenting partners after they are no longer spouses will always reach a better result than a trial judge who sees only the evidence presented in court.