Marriage Story wins with poignant realism and tight screenplay

Marriage Story is a poignant, grounded tale of a marriage in crisis and disintegration. Now streaming on Netflix, the screenplay by director (and producer) Noah Baumbach is tightly written, includes realistic dialogue, and driven by plot points most people who have experienced divorce will recognize. 

Marriage Story Benefits from Realism

The movie is notable for a number of reasons beyond is six nominations in major categories — the most of any film — at the 2020 Golden Globes. For one, Marriage Story is one of the few recent movies produced by Hollywood that aspires to true art while drawing exclusively on from the tension and conflict of everyday life. Baumbach builds the experiences of real world couples and marriage into the plot, and he keeps the story focused. The characters are real, not caricatures. Baumbach has shown enough drama exists in the divorce of two people who still care for each other and still love their child to drive a powerful movie. 

Trigger warning: For those who have gone through the emotional trauma of divorce, Baumbach’s movie may cut too close to the bone. The dialogue is realistic, the plot points draw on real decisions, fears, and trade-offs, and the emotionally soul-tearing effects of divorce are front and center.

Realistic Plot Drives a Realistic Story

In terms of plot, Charlie (Adam Driver) is a director in New York’s city’s avant-garde theater scene who is on the cusp of becoming nationally recognized for his work. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress, was born and bred in Los Angeles. She was a rising film star when she met Charlie, but still moved with him to New York City for his career. Her star power is one of the factors that helps Charlie get his theater company off the ground off Broadway. The cultural and artistic conflicts between movie-oriented Hollywood and theater-oriented New York is palpable, and a source of conflict within their marriage. Nicole still yearns to be in movies and be close to her LA-based mother and friends.

Charlie’s professional dedication has taken a toll after ten years of marriage, now complicated by their young son, Henry. They both deeply love Henry, although they have different approaches and attitudes toward parenting. They also agree to put the interests of their son first in their divorce, prompting them, unsuccessfully, to try mediation rather than engage the legal divorce process. This works, at first. But their hopes for an amicable settlement quickly begins to disintegrate despite the fact neither has substantial financial or physical assets. 

Marriage Story is notable for its particular take on a failing marriage. The divorce does not begin in epic or existential conflict. Rather, Marriage Story is about relational disintegration under the weight of the innocuous sounding “irreconcilable differences,” the peculiarities of state divorce laws, divorce law attorney tactics, and the inevitable suspicion and fear that accompanies the process of splitting up a household. 

Marriage Story Deserves the Accolades

Marriage Story also benefits from an outstanding supporting cast, including Laura Dern as Nicole’s LA-based divorce attorney, Julie Hagerty as Nicole supportive but conflicted mother, Ray Liota as an aggressive attorney Charlie considers to handle his case, and Alan Alda as an older realistic but compassionate divorce attorney who Charlie first engages to help him navigate the complexities of California’s divorce laws. 

Marriage Story led the 2020 Golden Globes with six nominations, with Laura Dern winning Best Supporting Actress in a Drama for her role as Nicole’s aggressive divorce attorney. The movie also was nominated for Best Film (Drama), Best Actress (Johansson), Best Actor (Driver), Best Screenplay (Baumbach), and Best Score (Randy Newman). Marriage story deserved all these nominations.

Author: SR Staley
SR Staley has one more than 11 literary awards for his fiction and nonfiction writing. He is on the full-time faculty of the College and Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University as well as a film critic and research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. His award-winning Pirate of Panther Bay series ( has won awards in historical fiction, mainstream & literary fiction, young adult fiction, and reached the finals in women's fiction. His most recent book is "The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution" due out in April 2020 (Routledge).