Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, and Azhy Robertson in Marriage Story (2019)

What Marriage Story Gets Right and Wrong About Divorce Law

It's more accurate than you might think
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Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story hit Netflix last week after it’s limited, Oscar-qualifying run in theaters, generating memes and well-deserved Oscar buzz for it’s cast. It’s a brutally honest film about the final days of the marriage of Charlie and Nicole Barber, and how things go from amicable to toxic between the couple, no thanks to their hot shot divorce lawyers.

It’s a great, emotionally honest film full of truly wonderful performances, but how accurate it is when it comes to the ins and outs of actual divorce proceedings? Well, before I was a journalist, I spent several years as a divorce attorney and paralegal and I can tell you…the movie gets things kind of right, but with more than a few changes for the sake of drama.

Spoilers to follow!

The biggest issue in the film is where Henry, the child of the marriage, and thus his parents will live. It’s a battle between New York and LA, with New York representing the inflexible, comfortable way things were that Charlie (Adam Driver) liked it, and LA symbolizing the new and uncomfortable reality, where Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) wants to find herself.

In real life, it’s incredibly hard for parents to move away from another parent, or to relocate a child. In fact, this is something I had clients flighting about this all the time, but usually after a divorce when judgments prevent people from moving. Even when a proceeding starts, there are usually court orders in place barring people from moving or changing anything about a kid’s routine. The film gets around this by having Nicole (Scarlett Johannson) move to LA before she actually files for divorce.

But in reality, Nicole wouldn’t be allowed to file in California in the first place. States require that people live there for a while and prove residence for a specific amount of time before they file a divorce. In California, that time period is six months, which doesn’t happen here. In real life, Nicole would have had to file in New York and no court would have allowed her to uproot a kid like that but…this is Hollywood.

Nicole moves with Henry because at first things are calm between her and Charlie, but that changes when a fancy Hollywood gal gives Nicole the number for super lawyer Nora, played by Laura Dern and her incredible arms.

I like Dern in this role, even if it’s another version of Renata from Big Little Lies. The film walks a fine line between saying that everything would have been fine if they hadn’t gotten lawyers and the idea that Nora is the first person to listen to Nicole and value her, her voice, and her needs in a long time. That’s what a good lawyer should be: the person that is unquestionably and doggedly on their client’s side.

dern and johansson in marrige story

Charlie bounces between two lawyers: a great, calm guy who actually takes care of things and is will to compromise played by Alan Alda, and an asshole played by Ray Liotta. Their hourly rates are insane to me but, I didn’t work in LA. Both these characters remind me of lawyers I knew well in my time with the family law bar: from Alda’s quiet, gentle competency, to Liotta’s dickish bluster. Oh, and the thing where Nicole consults with all the good lawyers in town to remove them as options for Charlie? That’s definitely something that really happens.

Something that doesn’t happen is a courtroom scene like we see with Dern and Liotta just going off about each other’s clients. I have no idea what kind of hearing this was supposed to be or what they were trying to prove to the judge. Even family law courts rely on actual evidence and the rules of court and lawyers don’t get to just make statements about people out of nowhere and they certainly don’t get to yell over one another.

The scene is bad, in terms of portraying what would happen in a real courtroom, but it is a great dramatization of what happens during divorce on a different scale. The attacks, the incriminations, the way it brings out the very worst in people and how it puts children in the middle of an emotional war that they aren’t responsible for. Some of the claims – like Nicole asking for charlie’s grant money – would be viable, but others – like Charlie paying 30% of Nicole’s legal fees or making claim to her inheritance – are not.

What Marriage Story does is take the endless emails and phone calls and motions and dramatize them into things the lawyers say out loud. They do this in other places too, like when Nora calls Charlie to tell him that Nicole might get a default against him. Legally, that sort of notice has to be in writing, but that would be a boring movie scene, so it becomes verbal and compelling.

Again, the movie is very careful to show that lawyers don’t make people do bad things or get petty, but they can absolutely empower and magnify the worst in people. The most accurate line of the movie, one I’ve heard in many ways before among lawyers is “criminal lawyers see bad people at their best, divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.” I can tell you for sure that the criminal clients I worked with were exponentially more respectful that my family law clients, and far less entitled and mean.

I went into Marriage Story worried that it would be another Hollywood product obviously made with no lawyers involved to consult, but that’s very much not the case. This is a really excellent picture of how a lot of divorces go and how the conflict isn’t really about the lawyers or even the kid, but about years of anger and hurt and resentment and fear coming out when there’s not enough love left to keep them at bay.

It’s a great movie, just take what happens in that courtroom with a few grains of salt. Lawyers aren’t allowed to do that…or take of jackets when they’re in sleeveless dresses. Even if they look like Laura Dern. Alas.

(images: Netflix)

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Jessica Mason
Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.