The 2019 film Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, and Ray Liotta, was nominated for six Oscar awards, including Best Picture. Johansson and Driver play a married couple going through a divorce, and the movie is described as an incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up and a family staying together.
We’re going to break down what the movie gets right about family law.
The Attorney-Client Relationship
Three scenes in the movie depict the initial family law consultation between a lawyer and client, and they demonstrate the importance of hiring an attorney that is a good fit for your personality and case facts.
Laura Dern plays one of the family law lawyers in the case, and her initial consultation with Scarlett Johansson is fairly realistic; she asks Johansson’s character to tell her story, because they’re going to be telling it together. This is very true as lawyers and clients need to be on the same page with their facts and the goals in the case, and be able to tell one consistent story to opposing counsel, the mediator, and the judge. Dern also empowers Johansson to take control of her situation, stating “Divorce is an act of hope; you’re telling the world, ‘I want something better for myself’”. These two easily relate to each other and get along, and as a result, a strong attorney-client relationship develops. This is often the case in any positive initial consultation.
Adam Driver’s character ends up meeting with two different attorneys before deciding on representation, which is something that is recommended before hiring an attorney. Ray Liotta plays the first attorney that Driver meets with, and Liotta has an aggressive and condescending style. Liotta tells him, “I bill $950 an hour. My associate, Ted, bills at $400 an hour. So if you have a stupid question, call Ted.” Liotta also tells him, “You’re going to hate us by the end of this.” Driver decides he does not want to be overly aggressive, and that Liotta is not the right attorney for him.
Driver then has a consultation with Alan Alda, who is honest with him about how ridiculous family law litigation can get: “Divorce is a death without a body”. Alda tells him the courts in California are a disaster, yet they still have to prepare for court, hoping that they don’t have to go to Court. Alda wins Driver over by saying, “I always stick with the truth, no matter where it goes” and “when this is all over, win or lose, you two will still have to figure this out together.” Driver is thankful for the candid advice, telling Alda, “You’re the first person to talk to me like a human through this whole process.” Alda is also conscious of the cost-benefit analysis that must be performed for every issue in every case, at one point saying, “It’s going to cost you half your money to protect half your money.” Lawyers and clients should avoid chasing a dime with a dollar!
The movie also gets it right regarding attorney-client communication. We see a few examples of the lawyers not always telling the client what they are going to do in the case, which leads to confusion and frustrates the goals of the clients.
A family law attorney should always consult with their clients before making decisions in the case so that the client has input and always knows what is going on. Clients should be copied on nearly all emails sent by the lawyer or legal assistant to anyone else in the case, and communications from the other side should be timely forwarded to the client.
Parenting Issues and Relocation
One of the main points of contention in the film is whether the family will live in Los Angeles or New York. The family is New York based, but when Johansson lands a role as an actress in a TV show in Los Angeles, she moves there with the child without an agreement with Driver. She enrolls their son in school and hires an attorney to file a divorce action in LA so she and the child can remain there. Driver is against this because he works in New York, and the family had always lived there. Unfortunately for Driver, he does not respond timely or strategically to his Wife’s court pleadings, and this lets Johansson set the case up for her and the child to remain in LA. This can happen, and ignoring / waiting to respond to any court filing could seriously hurt your case and legal position. It’s generally beneficial to be proactive in family law cases.
The movie also gets it right regarding how difficult child relocation cases are, and we see how the Judge is hesitant to rule until he gets an evaluation by a parenting expert. Judges do order these types of evaluations, and the expert will go into homes to observe families. We get a hilariously awkward scene depicting this process in the film.
Final Words and Rating
We give this movie 4 out of 5 gavels for its entertainment value and its honest depiction of one of couple’s experience with the family law system. The characters in Marriage Story never intended to go down the path of divorce litigation, and after all they went through, it was just as Alan Alda predicted: they still had to figure out a way to work together and co-parent for the sake of their child.
A good family law lawyer can help set you and your family up to get to a place where both parents are working together in the best interest of the children. Learn how Robert Sparks Attorneys can help you when you call to request a consultation.