by Vicki L. Shemin (Published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly February 13th 2020)
Baumbach’s 2010 film “Greenberg” gave us the foretelling relational pretext, subtext and context in the unforgettable line, “Hurt people hurt people.”
“The Squid and the Whale” in 2005 unfolded the story of his parents’ divorce through the children’s perspective.
Now, in “Marriage Story,” we are bearing witness to Baumbach’s own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, told from the perspective of the parents. In so doing, Baumbach hearkens clients to take heart, while inviting lawyers of every stripe to have a heart.
So lawyers, take a note (an oft-repeated phrase in the film). What do we do to manipulate clients and the system in the supposed best interests of our clients? Are we serving our own ends in a zero-sum game to win at all costs? For remember, “it is not enough that dogs win, cats must also fail.”
When relationships get strained, let’s all take a note as to how we want to act and react to our loved ones, to our children, to our colleagues — and to our clients.
A striking legal example highlights the point. Actress Laura Dern (the mother’s counsel in “Marriage Story”) does not even bother to consult her client as she seeks to score the ultimate win with a 55 percent (mother Nicole)/45 percent (father Charlie) custody split (giving Nicole one extra day every two weeks just so Charlie cannot brag to his friends that, in the end, he won and got 50/50 custody).
Another unforgettable aspect of the film is the seductiveness of attorney Nora Fanshaw (Dern), played with an ironic balance of “in-your-face” subtlety. Like a beautiful Venus flytrap adorned in sheath dresses, fabulous jewelry and Pilates-toned arms, she enchants her prey with outward beauty, grace, syrupy flattery, and a come-hither bewitching. All, that is, until she is triggered by possible reminders of her own divorce catalyzed by a cheating husband. From that point forward, victims are in her lockjaw death trap from which there is no escape.
It takes little imagination to wonder if Dern is fighting the good fight on behalf of her well-heeled clients, or is still trying to exact an unappeasable revenge for all the wronged parties who come within her ambit.
Much is made in the movie about how best to “play the game.”
The game of Monopoly foreshadows how each competitive parent passionately plays the game to win, but, with a chuckle, it is a game that the couple’s young son, Henry, is not good at because he does not like to part with his money. But when the parents are in the fight of their lives for monopolizing Henry, it’s a game changer. All rules can be broken, all’s fair in love and war, and the money that coulda/shoulda gone for Henry is squandered on playing that zero-sum game that is anything but child’s play.
What flames the genius of this film is that, as such a clear-eyed homage to the extinguishing embers of their failing marriage, the movie is also a tender-hearted ode to the intimacy of a couple’s textured, albeit unraveling, relationship.
The film can be likened to a Rorschach test. As you bear witness to the fractured deterioration — but in the end, reconstituted restoration — of the couple’s relationship, you will interpret aspects of the movie based on your own childhood, on your own adulthood, on your own personal experiences, and through your own professional lens.
Particularly in the dramatic fight scene when the parents are just talking “as us,” outside the presence of the chaperoning attorneys and away from the artifice of the courtroom, you either feel like you have uttered similar words with matched intensity, you have heard your loved one say similar words to you, or you have eavesdropped on others expressing similar sentiments.
In that knock-down, drag-out fight scene, if only Charlie or Nicole had apologized; had pledged to do better if given another chance; had taken a page out of the playbook of “Stuart Little” (a tale they were reading to their son) and not had an over-reaction; or had been more self-reflecting, could the relationship have taken a new turn instead of falling off the cliff with a point of no return?
Like a traffic accident on the side of the road, while part of you wants to turn away from bearing witness to the dreadful incident, part of you feels equally compelled to hyperfocus on the misfortune, all in an effort to understand what happened, all while staying in your own lane.
Baumbach literally uses all the visuals of his own splintering and wrenching marital trauma by having Dern play the part of the LA “divorce lawyer to the stars,” Laura Wasser. Take a note: Wasser not only represented Baumbach’s ex-wife when she fought for sole custody of their young son, Rohmer; she represented Dern in her own divorce. Literally returning to the scene of the crime, the conference room and office scenes were even filmed at the offices of Wasser.
And take a note, Rohmer is named after the French writer-director Eric Rohmer whom Baumbach greatly admires. The filmmaker Rohmer was known for his ability to blend comedy and tragedy and to observe up close characters who seem to have it all but are destined to self-sabotage. Sound familiar?
There is a cinematic confection captured in the couple’s relationship arc — that is, the words of tender reflection that cannot be said aloud at the beginning of the film by Nicole in Charlie’s presence. If Nicole doesn’t feel it, Nicole cannot emote it or act it out. But like a film reel itself, the relationship loop comes full circle as it folds back on itself. It ends where it started, only with a depth and tenderness that eventually found voice in the best thing about this couple: their son, Henry.
Although much compassion is stirred for Nicole, who lost her voice as her husband cast an ever-growing, ever-darkening, ever-suffocating sphere of influence over her as a woman and as an actress, equal compassion is aroused for Charlie, who is relegated to the lonely role of the Invisible Man, the fifth Beatle, and finds himself in hallways with doors literally closed to him.
In a myriad of ways, the film concretizes that part of “letting go” in a marriage is the exquisitely painful realization that you will never get as good a haircut; that your beloved in-laws may now become out-laws; that no one else will know your idiosyncrasies, like taking your Greek salad with olive oil and lemon instead of the usual dressing; and that you will no longer have that steadfast person to call in the middle of the night to rescue you when the power goes out.
And speaking again of coming full circle, whereas “The Squid and the Whale” was a critical and rather unforgiving reflection on how Baumbach’s parents handled their divorce, with the benefit of time, maturity, experience, distance and hindsight, this telling of the breakup of a marriage from the parents’ perspective is tolerant and compassionate.
That said, it does not escape us, as the viewers, that although the parents are mouthing all the right words (as if they had read all the “right books” on divorce parenting), they each almost always miss the mark in not listening to what Henry is actually feeling or saying in the moment. After all, the solution of two Halloweens does not always yield the sweetest resolution.
So, as to the legacy of this movie, when “hurt people hurt people,” when relationships get strained, let’s all take a note as to how we want to act and react to our loved ones, to our children, to our colleagues — and to our clients. Rather than go scorched earth, let’s leave untouched the best part of those relationships even when the flame goes out and we encounter only dying embers.
What better Valentine gift is there than that?
Vicki L. Shemin, a divorce lawyer and clinical social worker, is a partner at Fields & Dennis in Wellesley.