The divorce issue in Noah Baumbach‘s Marriage Story is mostly geographical. The separating couple is Adam Driver‘s Charlie, a hotshot New York theatre director, and Scarlet Johansson‘s Nicole, a frustrated actress who, feeling un-heard by Charlie, wants to re-charge her career with a starring role in a new Los Angeles-based TV series. The question is where will their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) principally reside? In Charlie’s N.Y. apartment or Nicole’s Los Feliz (or wherever the hell it is) home?
But it’s also a matter of culture and spirit, at least as far as Charlie is concerned. If he decides to move to Los Angeles for Henry’s sake, and at the same time re-launch and re-purpose his theatre-directing career out of that sprawling burgh, he will be accepting a certain degree of cultural diminishment. For L.A. has always been and always will be a second-tier hive in the theatre realm. New York, London and Chicago are the top theatre towns — Los Angeles is strictly a satellite. Or, if you want to be harsh about it, a kind of balmy Siberia. At best a try-out town.
If Charlie was a movie director, like Baumbach, it wouldn’t matter as much (and it might even prove fruitful to move to L.A.). But that’s not the shot here. Charlie is a BAM or off-Broadway or Tin Pan Alley guy, steeped and swaddled in NYC theatre culture and mainlining the creative thrill of it all. He can move to West Hollywood and make a go of a West Coast theatre career, sure, but in the minds of many producers, actors and theatre-loving elitists he’d be doomed to fringe status for as long as his Los Angeles residence is maintained.
In an 11.17 piece titled “Whose Side Is Marriage Story On?,” Variety‘s Owen Glieberman passes along the conventional view that in the long arc of the story, Charlie is revealed as the bad guy who needs to grow and change and re-think his priorities.
“Almost any argument, within a marriage, can be about something larger than that argument,” OG writes. “Marriage Story makes the audience feel blindsided, too, as we can’t help, at first, but sympathize with Charlie. Yet the world that’s churning inside Nicole comes rushing into the drama during the scene where she first consults Laura Dern’s divorce lawyer to the stars. In a monologue that becomes an extraordinarily spontaneous and expressive piece of acting, Scarlett Johansson articulates the reasons — the stirrings of Nicole’s heart, the workings of her mind, the place they interlock — for why the East Coast-vs.-West Coast conflict in her marriage embodied something so much bigger.
“It wasn’t just a power struggle about where they were going to live. It was about the primal issue of whether Charlie, wrapped up in his cushy bohemian life, actually heard her. He didn’t. He wouldn’t. And that’s the wound, the sin, the problem. That’s why they’re getting divorced.”
And maybe, all things considered, that’s for the best. Let the custody battle go and get on with your life (as a father and a dynamic creative being) as best you can.
I didn’t fight my ex when she divorced me and moved to San Francisco with our two boys. She took custody and I visited as much as possible (particularly when she went on business trips). I would also take them on driving trips from time to time. And to my parents home in Connecticut for the holidays and even to Europe once or twice. And when they got older they would fly down to see me in Los Angeles. I didn’t give a single dime to a divorce attorney. All my dough was sunk into Jett and Dylan face time.
This is what Charlie should have done — visited Los Angeles as often as possible, brought Henry to NYC whenever feasible, gone on hiking and rafting trips, etc. This is what Baumbach (who based Marriage Story on his divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh) does now with his son Rohmer.
What does Charlie do in the film? He empties his bank account on two divorce attorneys, rents a second apartment in Los Angeles to establish residency, flies back and forth between N.Y. and L.A., sings Stephen Sondheim‘s “Being Alive” and finally decides that he should try to become an L.A.-based theatre director, at least on a part-time basis.
Terrific! For the love of his son, a top-tier New York theatre director has accepted a career downgrade (just like Dustin Hoffman temporarily does in Kramer vs. Kramer) and — if he invests in an L.A. stage career — will gradually be forgotten by the New York and London theatre community.
This is not the situation that Baumbach, the real-life Charlie, is dealing with in his movie career. He and partner Greta Gerwig (who has not been given a stand-in character or dramatic function by proxy in Marriage Story, despite a general presumption that she was almost certainly part of the Baumbach-JJL split-up on some peripheral level) are both flush and living in Brooklyn with a new baby, and are doing totally fine. And Rohmer, who lives with JJL in Los Angeles, visits them fairly often.