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10 Relationship Lessons From “Marriage Story”

  • Mason Masters

  • March 11, 2020

Sometimes you want more than Netflix and chill. That implies casualness, a quick fuck. The romantic dinner for two needs to make a comeback. A prestigious date that ends, a few years later, in marriage. The Netflix production Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach, is meant to be a serious movie and a sign of going steady. The company hoped it would pull in awards and make the streaming service seem a little more respectable. It’s about a woman and a man who meet, fall in love and have a wonderful life together as they raise their child (that all happens before the opening credits). Unfortunately the movie comes across as needy. It doesn’t feel genuine. The spark is missing. First impressions are lasting ones, after all. But just because the film is only slightly above average doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer wisdom. Here is some relationship advice it offers:

Lesson 1

It’s really important to ignore every positive detail about your partner. Marriage Story opens with two extended monologues from each character praising all the great things their partner does, with accompanying montages so that we can also see it all in action. What isn’t explained is why Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is reading it out loud when in the next scene she refuses to read it to the marriage counselor. Charlie (Adam Driver) on the other hand is eager — eager as in simping — to read out his list. The lists are about as quirky and specific as a script writer would make it, but unrealistic when you think about it. Despite these lists of great attributes we know from the beginning that the two will divorce. It’s already happening. The only thing one can conclude from this is that you should in fact ignore the negatives and be as annoying as possible to your partner. It’s far better to have a constant hum of jovial conflict that you can move past quickly rather than bottling it up, as these two seem to do. The list of positives is a smoke screen. In fact, they can easily be read as the opposite of what the person is saying. Only two people who hate each other would actually bother to think of the exact instances in which their partner is lovable, and even then each of those are tinged with spite.

Lesson 2

Always end a marriage as quickly as possible. Absolutely no second guessing. Ostensibly Marriage Story should be called DIVORCE story, but that sort of response is itself cliche, as if invited, as if the director laid a trap for you. It’s ironic, you see. Don’t most marriages end in divorce anyway? It’s almost like a divorce is part and parcel of living in a modern marriage. The marriage moment is the only thing that matters, not happily ever after. No one wants to get divorced, but everyone wants to get married. Maybe that’s why there are so many divorces. It allows you to marry again. Marriage for all. Polyamory and divorce, two sides of the same coin. Keep calm and divorce amicably. Charlie and Nicole don’t divorce amicably. I mean, they want to, but they don’t. You can’t. It won’t happen. You know people have divorce parties? It’s something to celebrate, apparently. Unilateral divorce is good because it evens the playing field. Our civilization loves second chances. Don’t let the process draw out.

Lesson 3

It’s the other person’s fault. Dude’s who watch Marriage Story are going to think Charlie was in the right, that the courts were stacked against him, that his ex-wife was out to get him. Chicks are going to praise Nicole for being so tough on her controlling husband, taking her agency back, finding some good side dick. So who is correct? Or are we back to cliches: they’re both wrong? These two absolutely deplorable people who fell into an unplanned marriage because of an unplanned pregnancy and then never talked about anything to each other, living their lives like they were supposed to and not being awake to the possibilities while they repressed their urges and emotions and pushed them further and further down until they exploded out in the form of flirting and fist throwing and fear are as guilty as each other. When I get a divorce, I’ll make sure everyone knows it’s her fault. 

Lesson 4

Never go into marriage with your business partner. The other way around is fine, but what Marriage Story shows is that you should never get into a relationship with someone you work with. Never. This goes double for creatives. Too much ego. This should be obvious.

Lesson 5

Women are conniving cunts and men are cuckolded cretins. The divorce is Nicole’s decision. She springs it on Charlie without ever wanting to talk through their marriage. She made her choice before the movie even begins. All the screen time is spent on Charlie playing catch up. There’s a bit near the end where Nicole and her mum and sister are singing a song about how crazy Charlie is. The next scene is Charlie singing a song by how fucked up his emotions are because she left him. They call that juxtaposition. The last scene is even more blatant. It’s Halloween. Charlie rocks up in LA and his ex-mother-in-law, who apparently loves him and doesn’t want her daughter to divorce him, is playing laser guns with Nicole’s new boyfriend, so that Charlie is doubly replaced. Charlie dresses as a ghost for trick or treating. He’s not there. (The previous Halloween he was the Invisible Man and Henry his son was Frankenstein’s monster proving that the director has an uncanny knack for metaphor.) Afterwards Nicole throws scraps to Charlie and says that because Henry is tired he can have him, even though it’s her night, so that she can go out to dinner and drink with her new boyfriend. How selfless. The last shot is Nicole tying Charlie’s shoelace and him being gracious. Apparently he was the one meant to be the controlling one in the relationship but there is literally zero evidence of this, and in fact the movie shows how meticulously Nicole plays Charlie, how finely she pulls at his strings. Meanwhile he continues to simp right until the last shot. Despicable.

Lesson 6

If you begin to see your relationship through the lens of metaphor, run. There are a number of key moments which are deplorably heavy-handed. The first: early on Charlie and Nicole literally pulling at Henry to determine where he goes. The camera hops back and forth, the emphasis painful. Later: Nicole calls Charlie and Henry round (manipulating a chance to see her son?) because her driveway gate won’t close. As the two adults run it shut, Charlie on the outside, the camera again jumps between their faces as the gate slices their life in two. Powerful. If you thought Parasite was contrived, then this should reset your expectations

Lesson 7

Don’t marry outside your class. Nicole is from a rich L.A. family. She knows money. She was born famous. When she married Charlie, she married down even if she didn’t know it. Charlie came from nothing (repeated a few times in the movie, just so it’s clear) and made himself a New Yorker. He has no pretensions. Young, idealistic women always think they can overcome any barriers, but when it comes to social status romance demands an equal.

Lesson 8

Don’t hire a lawyer, at least in America. Marriage Story makes divorce seem like the greatest catch-22 on the planet. Nicole’s lawyer, Nora (a role for which actress Laura Dern received an Oscar even though it’s the same damn role she always plays), approaches with empathy. She’s been through a divorce too. She knows what it’s like. And she’ll take that scum-eating piece of shit for everything he’s worth. Charlie hires an old man who’s on his fourth marriage. This guy also knows what it’s like. So he admits defeat (in not so many words). This forces Charlie to fight fire with fire, so he hires his own assholes. These two lawyers are the only people in the movie who tell the truth, who get to the point, and in fact who seem to have healthy marriages. Make of that what you will. It almost seems that it would be easier to give the woman everything she wants (full custody, money) rather than go through the outrageous system and costs. There is a drawn out scene where the lawyers are essentially abusing the other clients with tales of woe and misdeeds, and is a great example of not enough time being spent in the editing room. Some people love misery, particularly lawyers and screenwriters.

Lesson 9

Modern relationships are so complex they inevitably wither to entropy, and the first thing to go is the sex. Charlie and Nicole don’t have sex, so he sleeps with his stage manager. Once. Nicole gets with a co-worker at a party before she and Charlie are divorced. She tells the guy to only use his fingers. Her moral worth won’t let her do anything ‘more’. Sex is something that gets in the way of real life. Sex is something that happens. Sex creates children that makes things harder. Stay single; stay celibate; stay whole.

If you’re male, don’t even bother with marriage. She’ll fuck you over anyway.

Lesson 10

Reconsider your relationship with Netflix. It has some great shows on it, but it’s never there for you when you need it. Friday night. Pizza’s ordered. Beers are cracked. What to watch? Thirty minutes later you’re tipsy and the pizza’s lukewarm. It would all have been so easy if you’d just picked the latest Netflix Original. Simple, paint-by-numbers genre movies. Foolishly you hunted for something worth watching that you hadn’t watched before. The Departed, again? With Netflix it’s easy. Want a buddy cop escapade? Spenser Confidential. Thought-provoking sci-fi? Mother. Spooky horror? Birdbox. These are easy choices but you always feel unsatisfied when they’re over. Slim pickings. Most of these Originals are little more than time filler. Slightly above average two-hour long narratives that linger like a Big Mac and leave a nasty aftertaste (Tall Girl? Really?).  Marriage Story fits right into this. It’s a Netflix arthouse drama with Big Name actors who overdo every scene as they scrounge for emotion. Everything you expect to happen, happens. Let it be the last mediocrity you watch. Ah, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Netflix is like a bad relationship. You just keep coming back to it.

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  • Andrew C Evers

    Great article, I’ve never watched this movie but I guarantee I got more enjoyment out of your analysis than I would ever out of Netflix’s selection, which aligns itself more with the popcorn aspect of the movie experience than the actual story telling aspect. Incomplete concepts and underdeveloped story structure which ride on the coattails of nothing more than the common American archetypes. I’m unsure if Netflix does this on purpose to get more views from unconsciously unsatisfied viewers or if it is part of a darker plot to create an audience of cognitively simple subscribers.

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