Marriage Story movie

Marriage Story is a movie on Netflix that centers on a divorce lawsuit.

Warning: *** spoilers ***

As in about 50 percent of American marriages (source), the wife loses interest in having sex with the husband. After sleeping on the couch for about a year the guy eventually has sex with a single co-worker subordinate (the sequel will be #MeToo Story?). The wife finds out by getting into his email. Combining the outrage regarding the infidelity with her lack of interest in being in New York or with the father of her child, she decides to move to Los Angeles with their son and pursue a divorce.

The wife agrees to mediate, but a producer in LA tells her about the big wins she had in court with the litigator to whom she refers the wife. The wife secretly meets with the litigator and initially expresses reservations about the likely negative effects on her son of cutting off the child’s access to his father. The litigator urges her to think “I want something better for myself.” The wife quickly comes around to the idea of “adult plaintiff first” and surprises the husband, who still expects a cooperative mediated process, with a Petition (what in other states would be a Complaint; see this chapter on California family law). As often happens in real life, the surprise puts the husband on his back foot and he is never able to recover.

At this point in the movie we have a divorce plaintiff with one child played by a divorce plaintiff with one child (see “Scarlett Johansson Files for Divorce From Romain Dauriac”: “Scarlett Johansson’s husband was ‘shocked’ by the star’s divorce filing and sees the move as a ‘pre-emptive strike’ in a battle over custody of the couple’s toddler daughter, his lawyer said.”)

How will viewers be educated about important LGBTQIA+ issues if the movie is about a divorce lawsuit between two cisgender heterosexuals? Simple: Have everyone else be part of or touched by the LGBTQIA+ community. The plaintiff’s 64-year-old mother says that she has “a dead gay husband”. Apropos of nothing, a grip on the mom’s TV show says that he was “raised by two mothers.” An actor in the defendant’s theater company advises him to adapt to the departure of the wife by having sex with a lot of women… and men.

If the movie suggests that divorce litigation, as opposed to mediation, is caused by women hungry for big victories, it patiently explains, through the seasoned litigator (Laura Dern, who was herself a divorce, primary custody, child support, and alimony plaintiff in 2012), that actual divorce is caused by men “getting sick of” wives once they become moms. (Contrary to the statistics that, at least when it comes to who stops agreeing to sex and who initiates divorce, it is wives who get sick of husbands.)

One aspect of the movie that seems unrealistic is how fond the litigants are of each other, constantly hugging and pecking with kisses. The plaintiff wife has launched the family into a process that will consume 100 percent of everything that they’ve earned together and the defendant husband is as fond of her as ever. On the other hand, the legal fees portrayed are realistic: $950/hr for a divorce litigator partner and $400/hr for an associate; $450/hr for a old solo practitioner (who informs the defendant that he’ll end up being stuck with the bill for the wife’s superstar litigator and explains that “You’re [defending the custody lawsuit] because you love your kid. And in doing so, you’re draining money from your kid’s education.”).

Another realistic touch is that the father, once his lawyer tells him that he is almost guaranteed to lose, seeks a different lawyer. This is consistent with the near-universal loss aversion cognitive deficit described in Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kahneman), in a chapter on why lawsuits aren’t more frequently settled when the parties are pretty sure how it is likely to turn out.

The wife pursues a conventional-for-plaintiffs real-life strategy of conflicting out all of the high quality litigators she can find in the Los Angeles region by consulting with them briefly, thus denying her defendant the opportunity to use any of them. She meets with at least 11 law firms with her young son in tow, plus an unspecified additional number without him. The husband is playing checkers while the wife is playing chess. He expresses his faith in her character and says that he knows he wouldn’t have done something like this on purpose. The receptionist who has to turn down his business at a law firm due to a failed conflict check and tells him about this strategy says “You’d be surprised.”

The Mother’s California litigator tells her client that mothers are held to a higher standard than fathers and that the mother needs to be worried about losing custody if she admits to drinking a few glasses of wine. If true, the average California father must be a pretty sorry example since it seems that nearly all of them end up losing custody lawsuits (94 percent of the people in California collecting child support are women).

As seen in the movie Divorce Corp., a custody evaluator shows up to observe the dad and soon-to-be-ex-son in his crummy mostly bare rental apartment. As with the litigators, she delivers a convincing performance as the kind of person who makes money off children and spouses who want to have sex with new friends. The mother gets top-quality coaching from her attorneys on how to interact with the evaluator while the father is winging it.

Double spoiler alert: By the end of the movie, the father has suffered a complete defeat on every issue that was important to him. The boy will have access to the father 45 percent of the time, but only when the father is in Los Angeles (so if he were able to show up to LA for, e.g., 20 percent of the year, the son would see the father about 9 percent of the year). Since the mother, having moved into TV, is on track to make more money than the father, the parties supposedly settle without her being paid. (But if she is taking care of the child most of the time, it is tough to believe that a judge would approve the settlement without her getting a child support revenue steram.) The father had loved living in Brooklyn and walking around New York City. He ends up impoverished and spending a lot of time driving around Los Angeles in a crummy compact car. He is so compromised as a human being compared to what he used to be that he is essentially a different person than the father that the boy once had.

The mother ends up with a great career, a boyfriend who is younger and more cheerful than the discarded MacArthur Genius director, and a fabulous West Hollywood house.

The movie is not set in Massachusetts, but it suggests that “yes” is the answer to “Men in Massachusetts should simply not show up to defend restraining orders, divorces, and other family law matters?” (California is also a winner-take-all state in which courts like to find a “primary parent” to anoint as the winner.) In the middle of the movie the mother’s attorney threatens the father with a default judgment if he doesn’t pause the theater work that he loves in New York, fly out to Los Angeles, hire a lawyer, and respond to the mother’s petition (complaint).

But custody decisions aren’t final. The father had to go out to LA to see the child anyway. He could have moved out there after losing the divorce lawsuit by default and just asked the court to set a new parenting time plan based on the new circumstances of him being available in LA. On the financial side, the mother couldn’t have hoped to take away from the father any more via a default judgment than she and the lawyers on both sides took away via litigation. He could have stayed in New York, concentrated on his work and friends, and seen his son when convenient. By focusing on defending the lawsuit, he transformed his life into concentrating on negative relationships with (a) his plaintiff, (b) the lawyers on both sides who were bleeding out all of both sides’ assets, (c) the custody evaluator, (d) economy airline seats, etc.

The research psychologists say that children are better off in states such as Arizona, Nevada, et al. with 50/50 shared parenting rules, but the movie also shows that fathers and children are better off in countries, e.g., Switzerland, that have simple “mom wins” rules. Instead of spending the children’s college fund and years of time trying to prevent the mom from winning “primary parent” status (and almost inevitably failing in this endeavor), the father who gets sued in these countries can pay a few $thousand in fees and see if the mother wants any assistance with child-rearing beyond the conventional one weekend/month and 3-4 weeks of summer holiday.

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17 thoughts on “Marriage Story movie

  1. Thanks for the summary. I tried to watch the movie, but it was too real, and too descriptive of screwed up attitudes that people have. And no Hollywood ending where things get fixed.

    • I had the same experience. I am waiting for the pro forma feminist complaints in the media that the film doesn’t depict women in a saintly enough light and that the father’s toxic masculinity is not highlighted.

  2. Was reading Daily Mail (Fleet St tabloid, but remarkably accurate) about Baumbach & Gerwig’s romance as they got together while Baumbach was married to Jennifer Jason Leigh. Commenter called Baumbach all sorts of names for capitalizing on his divorce from Leigh as basis for this film.

    I decided not to point out that given the child support he’s likely forking over to Leigh for their 9 yo child (he now has 9 mo old baby with Gerwig), Baumbach needed to look for material wherever he could get it:-)

    • update from WSJ weekend edition magazine story titled “Modern Love” which includes an interview with director Baumbach:
      Interviewer: Noah, I know it’s not directly autobiographical, but since the film is about relationships and co-parenting, can I ask if your ex-wife, Jennifer, has seen it, or if you had been in conversation with her about it?
      response from Noah: I showed her the script, and then I showed her the movie a little bit ago. She likes it a lot.

  3. Inre: “Unrealistic: the Mother’s California litigator tells her client that mothers are held to a higher standard than fathers and that the mother needs to be worried about losing custody if she admits to drinking a few glasses of wine….”

    Based on a friend’s experience, if you want to try to use that in a custody case against a woman, you had better be able to document it well. My friend was able to do it even though his -ex tried unsuccessfully to reverse it on him and blame him for her problem. He had evidence, she had hearsay, the evidence won, but he was unusually perspicacious, well-advised and prepared. He was always a super-detail oriented kind of guy and kept meticulous records going back to the time I knew him in high school. A lot of guys don’t do that.

  4. Observation: The word “love” is mentioned three times in this post and the word “vows” is mentioned zero times. Is there any mention of “love” or “vows” when it comes to the relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant in the movie? Or are they no longer compatible with marriage? How about the idea of “until death do us part?” That’s not in there either, I presume.

    “…because you love your kid…”
    “…had loved living in Brooklyn…”
    “…that he loves New York…”

    The whole experience (we dare not call it a sacrament) of getting married and bearing children ends with hideously expensive, permanently damaging results. If young adults see this movie (and it seems to very accurate) why would anyone go through it, especially knowing that it’s pretty likely one spouse or the other is going to get bored sleeping with the same person all the time? What in this movie, if anything, is uplifting, sacred, reverential, or anything positive about marriage? Aside from that, it sounds to me like the best possible thing you can do if you’re going to get married is to have an ironclad, detailed prenuptial agreement (if there is such a thing.) What a selfish world.

    • “”Or are they no longer compatible with marriage? How about the idea of “until death do us part?” ”

      They are no longer compatible with marriage. Instead of “until death do us part?” more appropriate is “until legal action is initiated by the more legally privileged spouse per her whim”.

    • A prenuptial agreement would not have reduced the intensity of the litigation portrayed in the movie. The litigation was regarding custody and where the child would live and, in the long run, presumably the child support profits that would accompany child ownership.

      The only thing the lawyers were talking about in the movie that might have been off the table due to a prenup is whether the plaintiff could collect half of the defendant’s MacArthur Genius award. (And had the award been larger it would simply have led to $300,000 in legal fees around a challenge to the validity of the prenup.)

    • Nobody in the movie mentions the idea that people might be bound in any way by wedding vows. Nobody mentions the idea that people should expend some effort to attempt to hold up his or her end of wedding vows made.

  5. Was there a scene where religiously observant relatives slammed their palms into their foreheads?

    Don’t marry outside the faith. Make sure the girl is observant. Then your odds of getting screwed are de minimis.

  6. Good advice for everyone, regardless of their marital status. Brings to mind author Iris Krasnow in her book “Surrendering to Marriage.” She talks about women who believe in the vows, but that doesn’t meant they can’t occasionally flirt with a neighbor, or fantasize about an old college flame, or sometimes find their own husband unreasonable (Krasnow deliberately takes separate vacations from her architect husband). I remember recommending this book to a guy who had just separated from his wife (wife’s idea, and she had moved with the three girls to a rental house nearby — but she had a high level federal job, and her parents in Montreal were loaded with money). He basically said it’s too late to convince the soon-to-be-ex of anything. Flash forward to some years later, and he was barely seeing the girls (paying a lot of child support though) — somehow whenever he was supposed to hang out with them, they needed to spend the whole day at the mall with their friends. The one time I spoke to the wife at our children’s soccer game years later, her anger toward the ex was visceral (and I barely knew her). I felt bad for him, but he was a difficult, opinionated guy (based on his behavior at a gym to which we both belonged) — but since he had a high income, and is very fit/lean, he has never lacked for gfs post-divorce.

  7. It’s chick-lit, but author Krasnow updated her original works (“Surrendering to Motherhood” and “Surrendering to Marriage”) with the following which is a fun read:iriskrasnow.com/_pages/book_secret_lives_of_wives.htm

    “Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes to Stay Married” . Krasnow has been married to the same man since the 1980s. She’s been on Oprah! (and if you’re in DC area, it’s pretty easy to hear her speak)

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