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Marriage Story Explained: Themes, Meaning and True Story

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is not a “divorce story.” It’s a story of a marriage as a whole, told from the vantage point of its final days, and honors all the good things that still remain between Adam Driver’s Charlie and Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole. It’s ultimately an affirmation of love in all its messiness, complexity, and impermanence.

TRANSCRIPT

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story finds love in a hopeless place. This tale of two people legally dissolving their union takes care to honor the good things that remain between Adam Driver’s Charlie and Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole—no matter how angry and hurt both feel. Ultimately, the movie’s title tells us everything. This isn’t a “divorce story”—it’s the story of a marriage as a whole, told from the vantage point of its final days.

The film begins with the couple describing each other’s most charming traits—

Charlie Barber: “Nicole gives great presents. She’s always inexplicably brewing a cup of tea that she doesn’t drink.”

Nicole Barber: “Charlie is undaunted… He’s very self-sufficient, he can darn a sock, cook himself dinner, and iron a shirt.” - A Marriage Story (2019)

—and ends with a gesture of one taking care of the other, reminding us that—as parents to their son Henry—they’ll always be family. The result is the rare divorce narrative that feels for both characters, and (after grieving what they’ve lost) makes us feel optimistic about their separation—because these two people, who do love each other, don’t belong together. And that’s okay.

Personal Storytelling: Baumbach’s Real-life Marriage Story

Baumbach has emphasized that Marriage Story is not autobiographical. But it’s also clear that the movie is deeply informed by the filmmaker’s own personal experiences and feelings.

The story bears overt similarities to Baumbach’s relationship with his ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh. Like Nicole, Leigh is an L.A.-born actress and the mother of Baumbach’s firstborn son, who at 9 years old is now close to Henry’s age in the film (even though Baumbach and Leigh divorced when their son was an infant). When the couple separated, Leigh moved back to L.A. while Baumbach stayed primarily in New York—echoing Charlie and Nicole’s cross-country divorce.

Ted: “We need to make an argument that you’re a New York-based family.”

Charlie Barber: “Well, we are.”

Jay Marotta: “Otherwise, you’ll probably never see your kid outside of LA again. - A Marriage Story (2019)

Leigh shot to fame when she starred in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which seems to have inspired Nicole’s breakout role in a college movie. Charlie and Nicole’s relationship as director and actress echoes Baumbach and Leigh’s collaborations on movies like Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding.

Baumbach is also a child of divorce. And in 2005’s Squid and the Whale, he examines divorce from the perspective of the kids. Now, in Marriage Story, he revisits it from the point of view of the parents. This feeling of a death or a severing is emphasized in scenes where the two feel pulled or are visually cut off from each other.

There’s a notable difference in how much Baumbach’s view of divorce has evolved between these films (presumably, in part, because he’s now been through one himself). Squid and the Whale has a dark view of patriarch Bernard as an arrogant egomaniac and focuses on how the kids are deeply scarred by their parents’ separation. Marriage Story is far more optimistic, framing both Charlie and Nicole as good parents and suggesting Henry will emerge more or less unscathed. Ultimately the movie’s basis in real experience (both Baumbach’s own and those of people he knows) leads to a story that feels chillingly universal. Anyone can see something familiar in this portrait of how love coexists with conflict, hurt, and even hatred—all for the same person.

Nicole Barber: “I can’t believe I have to know you FOREVER!” - A Marriage Story (2019)

Fighting Fair: A Many-Sided Story

Marriage Story isn’t just one story—it interweaves a number of narratives about this marriage. The film opens with lists of what’s lovable about each person, in the other’s eyes. Then we start hearing the couple’s conflicting narratives about their family’s home and future. Eventually, we watch the lawyers twist these narratives to create dark, damning portraits of each spouse. But near the end, the movie comes back to Nicole’s list of things she loves about Charlie as if to declare that this is the true story of their marriage.

Charlie Barber: “And I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.” - A Marriage Story (2019)

Onscreen divorce narratives frequently pick sides and focus on the vitriol to the point that the couple’s entire past is shaded with regret. But Marriage Story is the rare example that fights fair and prevents us from blaming one spouse as wholly at fault for the split. From the start, the film brings us into both Charlie and Nicole’s subjectivity. The camera foregrounds each person’s emotional experience.

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan is most known for 2018’s The Favourite and for his collaborations with Andrea Arnold, which also ground us in her characters’ subjectivity. And one of Baumbach’s visual inspirations was the faces in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. (The fake newspaper article we see also alludes to Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, another intimate psychological portrait of a marriage coming undone.) Ironically, the visual focus on what each character is feeling draws our attention to how their spouse isn’t seeing that. There’s a universal truth in this—often when couples are struggling, they’re feeling similar things and may be closer or more in agreement than they think, but lack of communication causes hurt and animosity to spiral out of control.

The film captures how easily conflicts can snowball into a terrible mess even when both parties have good intentions, and neither has done anything awful. When Johansson gives her major monologue to Laura Dern’s hotshot divorce lawyer Nora about why the marriage went wrong, Nicole’s reasons for divorcing Charlie are valid and inspire sympathy—but they’re hardly evidence that he’s the devil incarnate.

Nicole Barber: “He… truly didn’t see me. He didn’t see me as something separate from himself.” - A Marriage Story (2019)

Except for one thing—at the very end of her monologue, Nicole says “also, I think he slept with the stage manager, Mary Ann,” confirming what the movie hints at earlier, when Nicole reacts intensely to Mary Ann speaking to Charlie, and he tries to pacify her by leaving their own party early. Briefly, it might seem that the story is giving us our cue for who to condemn—cheating is the textbook “bad husband” behavior that narratives use to get us on the wife’s side. But when we get more context a little later, this one-time infidelity (after their marriage was already on the rocks) is at most a catalyst, or a symptom of what was already wrong—not central to why they’re separating.

After giving Nicole this early advantage by letting her air her grievances and tell her side of the story, the film shows more of Charlie’s suffering as he’s isolated and torn down by the divorce process. Given his growing fears of becoming alienated from his son, and the way he’s forced to give up time in his beloved New York for L.A., a city he hates, he’s the bigger “loser” in the situation.

Charlie’s two Halloween costumes symbolically announce his emotional state—the first year he feels like the Invisible Man, and the next year he’s become a ghost you could easily miss in this frame. These costumes reflect the pain of feeling like he’s no longer as central in his son’s life—like he’s being partially erased, just as (over the course of the film) he’s removed from the family portraits on the walls of his son’s primary home. And this reflects one of the most terrible results of divorce with a child: the loss of being a full-time parent.

Some viewers expressed the opinion that the movie ultimately sides more with Charlie, but in reality, it simply shows feeling for them in different ways (giving more weight to Nicole’s reasons why Charlie fell short in the past, and more screentime to Charlie’s present pain). The ultimate message that the movie gets across is that—so often in relationship breakdowns—no one is truly “wrong,” but that still doesn’t make anything right.

Nicole Barber: “I feel like maybe things have gone too far.” - A Marriage Story (2019)

The Divorce System: The Real Villian

Receptionist: “You know, it’s common that people meet with as many lawyers as possible so that their spouse has limited options.”

Charlie Barber: “Oh, I don’t think she would’ve done it deliberately.”

Receptionist: “You’d be surprised.” - A Marriage Story (2019)

In this movie where neither party is the bad guy, the one true antagonist is a bureaucratic system that seems determined to bring out the worst in everyone involved. Charlie and Nicole try to begin their separation from an amicable, mature place. But the film illustrates that it’s not possible to have a “gentle” divorce. Initially, it’s the divorce lawyers Nora and Jay who seem to blame for fueling hostilities in their egotistical ambition to win. Nora even slips in a last-minute clause just to make sure Charlie’s and Nicole’s custody isn’t quite equal.

Yet the lawyers’ competitive winner-take-all mentality is really just a symptom of a larger problem. The system requires lawyers to resort to mean, immoral tactics to do their jobs well. Charlie’s first lawyer Bert is the rare exception who retains a human perspective but this is precisely why Charlie has to fire him.

The movie also offers a commentary on how parents have to pretend to be unrealistically perfect to hold onto their kid. Nancy Katz, the woman who comes to observe Charlie’s parenting, reflects a system that’s designed to hyperfocus on potential flaws and risks instead of paying attention to the positive values of quality time with each parent. When Charlie accidentally cuts himself while doing the knife trick, this accident highlights the unnaturalness of being evaluated as a parent and it also provides an apt metaphor for how Charlie’s custody battle feels like bleeding out on the floor. Meanwhile, the way that Charlie and Nicole’s behavior is held against them in the divorce proceedings illustrates that any mom or dad would look bad when put under such a paranoid microscope.

Evaluator: “Anything since you’ve been a mother?”

Nicole Barber: “Pot a few times. Coke once at a party. I mean, Henry wasn’t with me.” - A Marriage Story (2019)

Nora gives a stand-out monologue highlighting how, to this day, there’s a double standard especially when it comes to mothers. In one of the most famous custody movies of all time, Kramer vs. Kramer, Meryl Streep’s character comes off as the parent in the wrong for temporarily abandoning her child. But Marriage Story takes care to counter this bias that a good mother must be perfect. Here, Nicole’s desire to carve out a brave new life without Charlie is the right instinct.

The movie also acknowledges that Nicole isn’t interested in stereotypically gendered expectations for mothers, like cooking and cleaning, but in no way frames this as a failing. Instead, she comes across as a loving, engaged mom who values connecting with her son.

Charlie Barber: She is a mother who plays, really plays.” - A Marriage Story (2019)

Overall, what the system creates—and what makes this divorce go so terribly—is distance. It doesn’t work when Charlie and Nicole hide their true feelings from each other, and put others in control of this process, as if it’s happening around them, without them truly being a part of it. It’s only when the pair talk through and understand each other—even though that requires painfully exposing their wounds—that things turn around. Ultimately, Charlie and Nicole need to take ownership of their divorce and do it together. So ironically, it takes collaboration and goodwill—not being at odds—for them to negotiate the healthiest possible future for their family.

We Don’t Belong Together

As much as the film emphasizes the love between this couple, it also makes it clear that Nicole and Charlie are better off apart. Each expresses that the other holds them back. There’s also a damaging undercurrent of competition between Nicole and Charlie. In the backstory, Nicole is the more famous one after her early movie career, but she loses status thanks to her choice to stay in New York as part of Charlie’s avant-garde theater company. Meanwhile, his star rises—and while he says he appreciates the sacrifice she made—he seems content with her as the lower-status spouse, as he won’t consider spending time in L.A. or letting her try directing.

Ironically, their opening lists name their competitive natures as something they like about each other. The couple also has an unhealthy relationship with control. We’re told Charlie was a controlling husband. Nicole feels he regulated every detail of her life with him, and we see brief hints of this even after they’re apart:

Charlie Barber: “Did you dye your hair again?”

Nicole Barber: “You don’t like it?”

Charlie Barber: “No, I guess it’s fine. Is it shorter? I prefer longer but…”

Nicole Barber: “Oh, sorry, it’s just absurd.” - A Marriage Story (2019)

This part of their relationship echoes their director/actress dynamic. These two are used to him directing her, which fuels her feeling that she’s always implementing his vision. Stifled by this power imbalance, Nicole is eventually overwhelmed by a desire to be “the director” herself—both onscreen and in her life.

But the best reason this couple shouldn’t be together—the only reason that really matters—is that they don’t actually want to be. In the couple’s climactic fight scene, where they have it all out, Nicole says the problem is: “You didn’t love me as much as I loved you!” And tellingly, Charlie doesn’t disagree: “What does that have to do with L.A.? What?” He reveals that he actually didn’t want to get married in the first place—and he long resented that he didn’t get more time in his twenties to enjoy being single… Often divorce is framed as a desperate last resort like you must need a dramatic reason to want out of a marriage. But isn’t not wanting to be married reason enough?

During the movie, the power balance shifts, as Nicole blossoms from being unsure of herself… into a thriving, confident career woman, while Charlie falters after winning his grant. But in the end, the silver lining is that both come into their own as a result of the uncoupling. Baumbach said, “her monologue and his song at opposite ends of the movie are mirror images of something: in a way, both of them find their voice”.

Their mirror journeys are reflected in the songs they sing from the Stephen Sondheim musical Company. Nicole performs You Could Drive a Person Crazy, which ends with the line “Bobby is my hobby, and I’m givin’ it up,” reflecting her successful extrication from an affair that’s been toxic for her mental health. And Charlie impulsively sings Being Alive, in which he rediscovers the need for love. Despite Charlie’s struggles, he needed this shake-up to rediscover his passion… and ultimately this moment is hopeful that there will be love again in his future.

Marriage Story counters our culture’s habit of seeing every end as a failure. It underlines that the enduring connection of sharing a big part of your life with someone doesn’t just go away. As Baumbach has said, “It can still be a love story even if they don’t end up together”. Some of the best love stories of all time finish this way. This movie about divorce is an affirmation of love, in all its messiness, complexity, and impermanence.

Nicole Barber: “It’s… not as simple as not being in love anymore.” - A Marriage Story (2019)