Noah Baumbach’s characters never quite come to classically dramatic, life-altering resolutions. Instead, they just sort of meander: Frances Hallady spends her movie fretting over her future and whether her best friend is outgrowing her; by the end, she’s warmly smiling at that friend from across a room, comfortable with the distance between them. Instead of confronting his feelings about his once-successful, now mostly petulant father in The Squid and the Whale, Walt just sort of acknowledges them, and walks away. Kicking and Screaming closes with a declaration of love that’s as romantic as it is practical: Josh Hamilton tells Olivia d’Abo that he wishes they were already an old couple, so he could kiss her tenderly without being too forward. There’s something gentle about these endings, and the way they reflect real life. “I don’t like when you necessarily know that this is the end of the movie,” Baumbach once told IndieWire about Squid. “I like when a movie ends abruptly. You go through this, and some of the scenes are uncomfortable, and some are funny — and then suddenly it’s over.”
Marriage Story’s ending works that way. In the movie’s first scene, we meet Charlie and Nicole Barber, who are trying to work through the terms of a separation with a mediator; Charlie is smug and Nicole is stubborn. Two scenes later, she moves across the country and vows to start a life with herself at the center, not her husband’s directing work. Via vicious attorneys, the couple exchanges barbs and jabs. Their fundamental fight is over custody — whether their son, Henry, should live in New York with his dad or Los Angeles with his mom — but there are other festering wounds resulting from breaches in loyalty and perceived power imbalances. Nicole says she was never really happy with Charlie, an admission that seems so totally opposite of his conception of their marriage. He fusses over her ideas about them as a couple like they’re a bad-faith read of a good text.
In the end, like most other Baumbach movies, someone flawed — usually intellectually sharp but emotionally obtuse — stops trying to bend every single other person or thing to their will. Charlie doesn’t ever explicitly take responsibility for the problems in his marriage (does he still think that Nicole should be upset not that he fucked another woman, but that he had a laugh with her?), but he does tacitly understand that his marriage, like his divorce, doesn’t have a clear hero or villain. For an audience of his close friends, he sings “Being Alive” — breathlessly, desperately — at an open mic. Baumbach’s script times our sympathy: Charlie was a bad husband in marriage and divorce, but we can’t help but feel bad for Adam Driver (big!) standing at a mic asking for someone to hold him too close, to sit in his chair. Cut to: a few months later, when he’s just arrived in Los Angeles. He tells Nicole that he’s taken a fellowship at UCLA to direct two plays.
“Oh,” Nicole says, her face colored by surprise. “That’s great.”
“You okay?” he asks.
She smiles and hands him an oversized bed sheet so he can go trick-or-treating with Henry, his grandmother, and Nicole’s boyfriend: “It’s only good.”
For the two preceding hours, Charlie has regaled us with his own self-pity from a defensive crouch. There’s a remarkable stillness to this moment. He’s alone with Nicole, his former in-laws having shut the doors to their rooms to finish getting ready for the night. The last time Charlie and Nicole were alone together, she challenged his selfishness when it came to discussions of where their family should live and he exploded, punching a hole in his living-room wall. It’s not that he seems especially excited about the UCLA gig or happy to share it with her, rather that for the first time he’s trying to fit into a lifestyle that’s not of his choosing, and to make this situation work. Nicole appreciates the effort and doesn’t gloat.
In the next scene, Charlie walks in on Henry reading a list written in Nicole’s handwriting of all the things she loves about Charlie. It’s the assignment from their mediator from Marriage Story’s first scene. “Charlie is incredibly neat and I rely on him to keep things in order,” Henry stammers, struggling over some of the two-syllable words. “He is energy conscious. He doesn’t look in the mirror too often. He cries easily in movies. He is very self-sufficient. He can darn a sock and cook himself dinner and iron a shirt. He rarely gets defeated, which I feel like I always do.” Charlie hasn’t read this letter, hasn’t heard it like we already have. Marriage Story doesn’t deal in flashbacks like another movie it’s been compared to: Blue Valentine, which reveled in its befores and afters. We never get to see how Charlie and Nicole were when they were happy, versus how they are during the dissolution of their marriage. The way this scene exists — Charlie tearing up, reading aloud everything his ex-wife loves about him — makes it seem like all of these things can still be true, despite the sting of the divorce. That love can still exist, albeit in a new shape. Marriage Story front-loads Nicole’s emotional arc, showing her tearfully recounting how small she felt in her marriage to her attorney. But the script’s structure is more interested in revealing how Charlie rails against the changes in his life; the way he reluctantly drives around L.A., lives in a stubbornly empty apartment, endures excruciating visits with lawyers and social workers. The movie’s thesis is that neither party was especially wrong or especially right.
And so the movie ends with that conclusion: Charlie and Nicole can have a relationship outside of their marriage, only as Henry’s two imperfect parents. About 90 minutes into Marriage Story, during the big, screamy fight scene, Nicole shouts, “I can’t believe I have to know you … forever!” But by the end of the movie, it’s Halloween again, and the Barbers are pleasantly co-parenting with a routine that is more sharing than sniping. That reality, knowing each other forever, doesn’t seem like such a bad thing after all. When they’ve finished trick-or-treating, Nicole offers to let Charlie take Henry home without being didactic about their custody agreement. They all hug and as he walks away, she runs after her ex-husband to tie his shoe (a moment that’s a bit too twee for my taste, but alas). Charlie carries his son to the car, and isn’t that what he really wanted most all along?