The Netflix original movie Marriage Story, written and directed by Noah Baumbach and starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, shines a light on the ending of a marriage. The Academy Award-nominated film is praised for its incisive and compassionate look at a family breaking up and transitioning into a co-parenting situation.
Naturally, as a family law attorney, I paid close attention to how my profession is portrayed in the film. For the most part, Baumbach did a terrific job. Without giving away too many spoilers if you haven’t already seen Marriage Story, we’ll get into the most truthful aspects of the film as well as some of the more embellished parts.
The Attorneys’ Roles Are Spot-On
The first half of the movie sets the stage by offering a glimpse into the marriage of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). You get a sense of their lives, their love, and their conflicts. You feel for both characters: each have their flaws and their qualities, and are both shown as are lovable and yet falling out of love. Both appear to be good parents, competent providers for the family, and seem to be without any glaring “issues” that make them unlikeable—as done intentionally by writer-director Baumbach.
Intertwined into the couple’s narrative are some important facts as it pertains to the divorce: The family moved from New York to LA on a seemingly temporary basis related to Nicole’s work as an actress. They had lived in New York for almost the entire duration of the marriage due to Charlie’s career, although they were married in California. Their son was born in California, and Nicole served Charlie with a petition for divorce while they were living in California. Nicole, in one scene, gets drunk after putting their eight-year-old son to bed. In another scene, Charlie loses his temper, yells, and punches a wall.
In the context of the how the film unfolds, the facts mentioned above feel like minor details. When the divorce lawyers get involved, these facts take precedence. By design, Baumbach uses this to create dissonance between what the lawyers are saying and what the viewer has come to understand. The lawyers, artfully portrayed by Ray Liotta and Laura Dern, extract what the court is interested in knowing about Charlie and Nicole. The viewer witnesses the deliberate reframing of the couple’s narrative—once at a settlement conference and later again in the courtroom—and this is a truthful example of how lawyers operate in a litigated divorce.
Courtroom Portrayal Is a Touch Off the Mark
The court hearing scenes were a little Hollywood in that the judge allowed the two attorneys to bicker during the divorce hearing. In real life, you can expect family court judges to exhibit more control over the courtroom. Judges prefer that counsel speak to the judge, and only the judge. Rarely, if ever, do attorneys engage in a back-and-forth before judicial officials, as was shown in the film. Judges want to hear facts and issues, not attorneys screaming at each other.
At a settlement conference, it’s a different story—you can expect to see back-and-forth between attorneys engaged in a negotiation. Attorneys are often in full-on power play mode. Laura Dern’s character was spot-on in that portrayal. She came to the table ready to negotiate a settlement in the interest of her client, and prepared a case assuming she would go to trial if need be. That is exactly what a good divorce attorney does.
Divorce Mediation Looked More Like Couples’ Therapy
Like many couples, Charlie and Nicole explored divorce mediation as a way to end their marriage. Both were interested in keeping the fighting and litigation costs to a minimum. You could tell from the onset that Nicole was not fully vested in the process. She lawyered up, and started into a litigated divorce. This is not an uncommon route for divorcing couples to take.
The way that the film portrayed mediation in California was not accurate. Baumbach shows the mediator using a letter writing technique that is more in line with something a marriage counselor would do. For the film, it served to introduce the characters and their issues, and show the affection these individuals did have for each other. But that isn’t what a mediator does.
At an actual divorce mediation, attorneys are more concerned with the facts and the issues, and try to get the couple to reach an agreement on them. In real life, the couples come in knowing they want to mediate and are asking about what they can do and how the attorney can help, rather than talking about the relationship and them getting along. Mediation seeks to put answers to their questions—what is the couple going to do regarding custody, what’s right regarding support, and issues of that nature. They probably agree regarding certain things, but they need help identifying all the issues and filing the paperwork.
All in all, the film is a gallant cinematic effort that provides a fair portrayal of what happens when a married couple decides to split up. If you have gone through a divorce, or are presently going through one yourself, the film will speak to you.
About the Author
Carrie Block is a Certified Family Law Specialist with extensive experience in all aspects of family law, including divorce, custody, child support, spousal support, paternity and premarital rights. She also represents clients in agreed-upon divorces, post-divorce modifications, enforcement of existing orders and premarital agreements.