Analysis

Marriage Story

Finding meaning, and maturity, in loss

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story is an eerily accurate account of divorce. As someone who went through the process this past decade, I felt the film more akin to a real-life documentary than a simple characterization of marital dissolution.

The same conversations with lawyers. The same surprise at what you thought was assumed agreements. The rush to protect a family changing right out from under you. The Invisible Man costume...the Invisible Man that eventually became a Ghost.

Marriage Story is hauntingly beautiful for those of us familiar with the course of a changing family dynamic. For those lucky enough to escape such an experience, Baumbach's latest offers a way in an emotionally compelling and thematically consistent narrative.

The Narrative Dynamics of a Family Drama

Adam Driver's acting is one thing—resting it on a great story is something else. As The Rise of Skywalker attests, you need a strong narrative to support meaningful emotional growth. Marriage Story delivers a story light years ahead of the rest.

A Family Drama burdens the experience of internal conflict with a sense of Overwhelm. While on the path to emotional relief, the proximity of objective and subjective concerns instills a feeling of heaviness into the narrative.

The Overall Story Throughline, or objective perspective, of Marriage Story focuses on the area of conflict in Psychology. The Main Character Throughline, or subjective point-of-view, plants a stake in Mind. Both Domains concentrate on the internal: Mind examines what we think, Psychology looks at how we think.

Consider the lawyers and well-meaning friends, and you witness manipulations as the source of conflict. Look to Charlie Barber's personal experience (Adam Driver), and you find a man working his way through heartbreak and loss. The former focuses on how we think (you need to get laid, you need to hire a private investigator), while the latter centers on what we believe (we're a family, we're a New York family, she would never do that). The combination of the two within the internal hemisphere weighs heavily on the minds of the Audience.

This juxtaposition also begs for balancing agents in the external hemisphere from both the Influence Character Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline.

Wife and movie actress turned stage actress turned television actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) challenges Charlie to reassess his justifications. As far as Charlie was concerned, Nicole was "happy," so why upset everything by moving out to Los Angeles? That shift in the Universe—of Nicole, and their son Henry, physically moving locations is the only thing that could have possibly shaken Charlie out of his preconceived notions of family. Talking and discussing options just isn't enough.

Universe balances Mind.

The relationship between the two of them, the marriage itself, takes on a personality of its own as it dissolves into separation. Husband and wife fight for custody, amplified by the egos of the lawyers they hire to claim their stake. Residency, custody, and fortune all play a part in the Physical act of splitting apart. Sidebars, courtrooms, establishing residency, and dinners with evaluators exemplify the kind of activities a couple engages in during this process of reclamation.

Physics balances Psychology.

The Four Domains

With all Four Throughlines firmly in place, Baumbach weaves a tapestry of experience that expresses a meaningful Premise:

Give up deliberating over what is best, and you can mature your family dynamic.

Nicole's Steadfast Pursuit of her dreams eventually leads Charlie to Reconsider setting up shop in LA:

Sandra and Carter hurry into different rooms, getting ready. Nicole enters into the bathroom.

NICOLE (O.S.)

We should leave soon! I'm saying that as much for me as anyone else.

CHARLIE

I wanted to tell you, I took a residency at UCLA. I'm going to direct two plays in rep at Red Cat.

Nicole reenters holding a sheet.

NICOLE

Oh…

CHARLIE

So, I'll be here for a while.

NICOLE

That's great.

But something strikes her as sad about it too.

CHARLIE

You OK?

NICOLE

Yeah. It's only good.

That heartache is the recognition that Charlie finally Changed his perspective—his Main Character Resolve. A Main Character stuck in personal justifications of the Mind evolves out of that perspective into one of Universe. Nicole's physical move and new status within the television industry drives Charlie into taking up physical residency at UCLA.

If the Influence Character Remains Steadfast, then the Main Character must Change his Resolve.

Charlie's "arc" moves him from a Problem of Consider to a Solution of Reconsider. Everything with Charlie is a discussion, a deliberation of options with no culminating decision.

NORA

Charlie, is this like the deal you made that you and Nicole would spend more time in LA during the marriage?

CHARLIE

(flustered)

We didn’t have a deal. It was something we discussed...but…

NORA

So, it’s a deal when it’s something you want, but it’s a discussion when Nicole wants it?

Silence.

That frame of mind stuck on "discussion" fuels Charlie's obliviousness, while simultaneously driving the narrative plot of a husband and wife going at it within the California court system.

The narrative Element of Consider is the lynchpin between the Subjective point-of-view of conflict and the Objective plot-oriented perspective.

In the end, Charlie gives up being driven by Consider and instead resolves the conflict with an Element of Reconsider. This approach, in turn, carries over into fixing the Overall Story Throughline.

NICOLE

We were going to bring him to dinner, but he's wiped out. Do you want to take him?

CHARLIE

(taken aback)

It’s your night…

NICOLE

I know.

CHARLIE

Yeah.

CHARLIE

I'll drop him back in the morning?

NICOLE

Yeah, just text when you're up and we'll figure it out.

NICOLE

(leaning down to Henry)

You’re going to go with your Dad, OK?

HENRY

OK.

The boy wraps his arms around his Dad’s neck and Charlie lifts him.

The Barber family dynamic matures with this back-and-forth, becoming friendlier (Story Goal of Becoming). The family dynamic no longer makes excuses through discussion; it moves on through a constant amending of position.

The heart of the story, however, rests in the emotional bond between Charlie and Nicole. While they can never go back, the one thing that pulled them together continues to exist through the end of this final scene:

Charlie, holding Henry, advances toward his parked car. Nicole watches.

NICOLE

Wait—

Charlie hesitates as Nicole hurries after him. She kneels down in the middle of the street.

CLOSE: Charlie’s laces spill out on the pavement.

She tugs on one which he’s stepping on. She taps his calf.

NICOLE

Can you—

He lifts up his foot so she can retrieve the lace.

She ties his sneaker. Charlie watches.

CHARLIE

(smiles)

Thanks.

She nods. He hikes Henry up tighter in his arms and continues toward his car. Nicole and Carter get in their parked Subaru in the foreground.

The Subaru drives toward us and off-camera and then reappears heading away from us now. As they pass Charlie and Henry, an arm waves out the window. Charlie raises his hand back.

Nicole’s car heads into the distance. Charlie stops at his rental and digs for the keys in his pocket. Henry holds on.

Charlie helped Nicole become a better actress with his genius direction. Nicole helped Charlie become a genius director with her instincts for directing. Their relationship existed as an example of the narrative Element of Help in action.

Plug the aforementioned narrative dynamics into the Dramatica model, and only one option remains for the Relationship Story Problem: Help.

Story Engine Settings for Marriage Story

The Elements highlighted in Blue above represent choices I made within Dramatica's Story Engine. The Elements in Red are what is needed to properly balance out the rest of the narrative--they're implied by the first set of choices.

That Element of Help listed as a Problem under the Relationship Story Throughline is the only thing that could adequately balance out the rest of the story and bring a feeling of emotional fulfillment to the satisfaction of the two of them moving on to a new life.

Either Baumbach uses Dramatica to assist his storytelling, his intuition naturally drew him towards Help, or the Dramatica model intuits great writing--either way, it's yet another example of modern day magic.

Regardless of the source of this narrative wonder, Marriage Story delivers a heartfelt moment of gain throughout all this loss. Nicole tying Charlie's shoe is confirmation that the relationship between the two of them based on Help remains steadfast post-divorce. The driving force behind their initial bond persists beyond the separation.

A beautiful beginning to a tragic ending.

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