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Netflix’s Marriage Story and Gender

Marriage Story starts out with a tone that feels deceptively like a romantic comedy.  Only later do we learn that we’re hearing the letters that the couple, Charlie and Nicole Barber, are reading in a mediation session for their imminent divorce.  

Deceptively Cutesy Opening Scene 

The opening scene of Marriage Story seems cutesy and almost cheesy, with the couple pointing out each other’s adorable foibles.  Thankfully, this light tone does not last, as the film focuses on the bitterness of the Barbers’ divorce.  Nicole, played by Scarlett Johansson, refers to Charlie as her “almost ex-husband–what’s the opposite of fiance?” 

In these letters, the task is to write about what they like about each other (although they want a divorce).  Charlie’s letter praises Nicole in terms of qualities we would traditionally think of as masculine: She’s good at opening jars due to “her strong arms,”  she’s messy, “she can drive a stick.”  And indeed Scarlett Johansson plays this role with a decidedly masculine aire, not to mention her short haircut and her deep voice.  To be clear, there is nothing necessarily wrong with a woman who reads a little masculine, but one does not find it very becoming in Ms. Johansson’s case.  

Another caveat is that the character Nicole has legitimate grievances in terms of her unhappiness in her marriage.  Yet she just doesn’t manage to be likable while trying to carry this off. 

Charlie, meanwhile, who is played by Adam Driver, is described in terms that one would associate with women.  He cries easily in movies.  He loves parenting. He cooks, irons, does childcare  Thankfully, Charlie as a character is a little bit more than that.  

They Lawyer Up 

The turning point in the story is when Nicole goes to see the leggy lawyer Nora, who advises a more aggressive approach.  Absent this chance meeting, presumably the couple would have resolved things more amicably.  At any rate, Nora gives Nicole some advice which is a fairly devastating portrayal of the female perspective in these matters: 

“...they ravish you with attention in the beginning.  And then once we have babies we become the mom, and they get sick of us.”  

Nicole scoffs because it rings true.  Ultimately Nora persuades Nicole to do what is best for her, though not necessarily for her kid–and certainly not what is best for her husband.  In this scene Nicole gives a detailed explanation of what went wrong in the marriage, and one cannot really find fault with it.  She didn’t feel “alive” in the partnership, but rather that she was just there to feed Charlie’s “aliveness.” 

With Nicole in LA staying with her mother, Charlie visits a couple weeks later.  But it hasn’t yet occurred to him that their relationship has turned, if not antagonistic, at least oppositional.  He still helps himself to stuff in the fridge.  When Nicole’s sister very awkwardly serves him the divorce papers, his demeanor visibly changes. Throughout Marriage Story, Charlie is in the process of slowly waking up to the fact that his wife does not want an amicable split, and that his wife intends to stay in Los Angeles with custody of his son.  

Now that Nicole hired a lawyer, Charlie is compelled to do the same, which tends to escalate the situation.  In a review of the film in The Guardian, Nicole’s decision to hire a lawyer is characterized as naive, which is to say that she didn’t mean to make the situation more acrimonious.  Yet this falls into the trap of not assigning the woman any agency in a world where men are perfectly capable of bad acts.  In fact, when Charlie tries to find a lawyer in LA, he is surprised to learn that Nicole has consulted with about a dozen divorce attornies just so they would be legally barred from representing him.  This points to a less than pure motive on behalf of Nicole.   

Charlie’s first meeting is with an aggressive, expensive lawyer, Jay Moratta, played by the late-great Ray Liotta.  Whereas the vibe in Nora’s office was all nurturing, here there is a masculine, combative energy.  Moratta tries to summarize Charlie’s situation as he told it to him: 

“So tell me the story again.  You came out here to visit your kid.  She serves you.  What a bitch.” 

It’s over-the-top, but it also shows that the lawyer has a more accurate read on the situation than Charlie, who would prefer to believe that things are still amicable.  After insisting that she’s not a bitch, he explains that he has to get back to his play and rehearsals.  In other words, he still doesn’t get it.  

In a bit of dramatic irony, it seems the audience is quicker to realize than him how aggressive his soon-to-be ex-wife really is.  

Charlie finds a lawyer that he feels like he clicks with, Bert Spitz, played by a kindly Alan Alda.  Spitz explains that Charlie could be responsible for some of Nicole’s legal fees.  “It doesn’t make sense, does it?” Spitz agrees.  He then comments: 

“Courts in California are a disaster.” 

The subtext, which the film dare not state, is that they mean to say it’s a disaster for men.  When Spitz advises that they avoid an nasty conflict and instead approach the negotiation with mutual respect, he is like a prophet of things to come.  Spitz does his best to establish that Charlie should share custody in New York, while trying to be charming as well. At least, Spitz sees that trying to get custody in New York is a lost cause and advises that Charlie accept the fact. 

With this, Charlie hires Moratta again to represent him.  Moratta power-walks into the courtroom, and Nicole and Nora realize the game has changed.  Charlie’s truculent new lawyer shows Charlie means to fight. 


Adam Driver definitely drives the film–no pun intended.  He’s a unique, thoughtful actor, with a unique look.  From the beginning, one senses that his character Charlie will be Mr. sensitive, modern male.  He is that–kind of, but he is a fairly dynamic character, primarily motivated by his desire to live, at least part of the time, with his son after his divorce.  Adam Driver himself does have a bit of a theater-kid vibe (like his character in Marriage Story), but he’s also a masculine, dynamic actor.  As it happens, Driver was a former marine, who never shipped out to Iraq due to an mountain biking injury prior to deployment. 

Scarlett Johansson as Nicole, on the other hand, is not exactly charming.  As stated, she has a somewhat masculine aire with her close-cropped haircut, which is not helped by her crass language.  For Halloween, she wears a suit as David Bowie, and the gender-bending is complete (and not particularly fetching).   It was perhaps meant as edgy when she tells the mediator and Charlie that she’ll leave them to “suck each other’s dicks,” but it really falls flat and leaves both Johannson and her character as thoroughly unattractive.  The emotional range of this peevish character goes from irritated, enraged, to patronizing and contemptuous.  In that sense, Johansson failed to elicit any sympathy from the audience.  

The only time Johansson looks happy is when she’s doing a song and dance routine with her mother and sister, who are also in the acting business.  Seeing as that Johansson is an actress playing an actress, there’s a bit of a narcissistic loop going here–though she implies that Charlie is narcissistic. 

Johansson does manage a smile a couple times, but this is not the youthful girl of Girl with the Pearl Earring.  I’m afraid a pretty face and a smile isn’t quite enough anymore.   One cannot say exactly how she should have played the role in Marriage Story, except to say that her persona in this film is troubling, insofar as it seems to reveal something unpleasant about Johansson herself. 

A Creative Solution 

One can’t help thinking that Charlie is making everything hard on himself.  When the divorce proceedings ramp up, he insists on having some type of custody in NY of his kid. He’s swimming against the current.  The girl with whom he cheated on his wife says she wants to come over–tonight.  After all, she reasons, he’s not married anymore.  “I’m not not married yet,” he responds lamely.  

What if instead Charlie just accepted the circumstances?  When Nicole says to him in a heated argument, “You’re fighting for something you don’t even want,” I tend to agree with her.  According to her, even in his time with Henry he’s too busy to pay attention to him.  He should “agree and amplify,” which is to say proceed with his life in New York. 

It would have been a creative solution, a passive-aggressive approach.   Let Nicole move to LA with the kid.  Anyway, Charlie’s son is quite the brat and has become a bonafide mama’s boy.  Is this what Charlie is fighting for–to put up with this kid’s insolence and whining?  Charlie could focus on theater and acting and his side chick.  Instead, everything he wanted which pulled him away from the marriage he now rejects.  

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