The plot of the Netflix movie Marriage Story is similar to many divorce tales that came before it. It’s about a couple named Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) — who used to be perfect for each other but no longer are and are about to separate — and their child Henry. If you’ve seen divorce-themed movies before, you’d know that all it takes to move a plot forward is one kid. That’s very much the case here.
Unlike other fictional about-to-divorce-couples like Oliver and Barbara Rose or the Kramers, Charlie and Nicole were initially going to separate Gwyneth-and-Chris-Martin-style because they both “wanted the same thing.” Until they didn’t and lawyers entered the picture.
Noah Baumbach’s film is, at once, lifelike and fantastical. Here are things it gets right and wrong about divorce law.
What it gets right
#1. Retainer fees and other things fees-related
There are three main lawyers in the film: Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), and Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta). Thanks to the Nora and Jay characters who mention their respective retainer fees, viewers were made aware of a little thing called retainer fee and that it’s not just a product of the scriptwriters’ imagination.
Yes, divorce costs money, but spouses don’t have to break the bank to do it. In that regard, depicting the financial aspects of retaining a lawyer (whether it was down-to-earth, reasonable Bert or high-profile ballbuster Nora) was necessary.
When cash-strapped Charlie felt that he was losing the case and his money at the same time because his lawyer Bert tended to tell long-winded jokes, the soon-to-be-divorced daddy vehemently asked his lawyer whether he was being charged for the joke.
This awkward scenario is actually pretty realistic; attorneys and clients are typically cognizant of time. Charlie eventually switched lawyers to someone who could match his spouse’s counsel’s cunning, efficiency, and ferociousness. Also realistic? Switching lawyers.
#2. Mediation before separation
Charlie and Nicole considered an amicable separation, evidenced by their mediation session at the beginning of the film. But as Nicole wasn’t quite emotionally prepared to handle being mediated, she walked out of the session, setting the dissolution in motion.
This depiction is accurate. Some spouses may not be ready to sit in with their once better-half in a mediation session and may just opt to hire a lawyer right away.
#3. Spouses getting barred from working with certain attorneys
After learning that one’s spouse will be barred from working with certain attorneys that one has already consulted, sneaky Nicole did exactly that. She went to several lawyers to crush Charlie’s chances of finding representation. Luckily for him, his ex-wife did not consult the other high-profile attorney in town, Jay Marotta, who was portrayed as sleazy but whose brand of sleazy was, dare we say it, on point.
#4. Family lawyers getting chummy in the hallway before toughing it out in the courtroom
Yep, that happens.
What it gets wrong
#1. The courtroom smackdown
There are things about Nora and Jay’s courtroom smackdown that strike us as false. In the scene, the two lawyers had a row using their clients’ supposed faults. The scene is riveting but also atrocious. We’ll say this: no family court judge in Washington would allow their courtroom shenanigans.
The scene was clearly played for dramatic effect, and we enjoyed it for what it is: a farce. And to be fair, wood-paneled courtrooms usually make for a fantastic backdrop for otherwise uneventful court scenes.
#2. Los Angeles vs. New York
That Nicole was allowed to file for divorce in California when it was clear that their family had resided in New York for a significant amount of time is mind-boggling. Charlie shouldn’t have had to maintain residency in LA to be closer to their child. To the movie’s credit, it tried to get around this contentious moving-away plot by establishing that Nicole and Charlie moved to Los Angeles before Nicole filed for divorce.
Yes, many moving-away cases are unique. But in this instance, we are not fooled.
#3. Nora getting Nicole 55/45 custody of Henry
There’s a scene towards the end of the film in which Nora offhandedly tells Nicole that she “won” 55/45 custody of Henry instead of 50/50 as originally agreed upon. Nora made this last-minute decision seemingly to spite her client’s ex.
Revealing Nora as a vindictive attorney may have made for a neat little character twist, but this reveal could make any family law attorney snort. More often than not, attorneys’ ultimate goal is to get both parties a fair deal, rather than egg on their clients to outdo the other.
We’ve dealt with many a Divorce Story from years of lawyering in Seattle. So call the offices of divorce attorneys Buckingham, LaGrandeur, & Williams if you want the dissolution of your marriage to be easy, pain-free, and un-protracted (unlike Charlie and Nicole’s).