Brow Beat

“Holy Crap, Do We Come Off Like That?”

A celebrity divorce lawyer on Laura Dern and Ray Liotta’s sniping litigators in Marriage Story.

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson sit on a bench in a courthouse in a still from in Marriage Story.
Laura Dern plays Scarlett Johansson’s divorce lawyer in Marriage Story. Wilson Webb/Netflix

The built-in irony of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is that it’s mostly about divorce. To that end, it features what is surely the best divorce-lawyer acting you’ve ever seen from Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as the high-powered Hollywood attorneys representing each half of the couple at the movie’s center (plus a little help from Alan Alda as a, ahem, somewhat lower-powered divorce lawyer). To find out how the movie’s decidedly barbed take on high-profile, high-stakes divorces sat with someone who actually litigates them, Slate called Nancy Chemtob, a matrimonial attorney who has handled the divorces of Tory Burch, Star Jones, and Bobby Flay, among others. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: What did you think of the movie?

Nancy Chemtob: I really liked it. Doing it for a living, it was hard to watch. I have to tell you, it was one of those movies that when I walked out, I felt like I should be able to bill my time for watching that movie. It was very accurate. You felt the pain of the clients and the kid.

What parts stood out to you most?

My favorite was the sister [Cassie, played by Merritt Wever] and the serving. That was one little tidbit that was so accurate to me, because you can’t serve your spouse. The law is you just can’t be a party to the action. That’s why the sister served. I found that to be very funny and very something that could actually happen. You could feel the anxiety.

And the mother [Sandra, played by Julie Hagerty]. She was great. She just wanted to keep everyone happy. She was playing both sides of the fence. She really liked her son-in-law, but she had to be aligned with her daughter. She was so funny—it was like whoever was in the room was who she would like and be with. It’s so the beginning of a case. In the beginning of a case, usually the parents are trying to keep their relationships with both sides, especially if there’s a child.

Did the movie get anything big wrong?

The one thing that bothered me is that under the law, you can’t move a child out of a jurisdiction. I kept waiting for these lawyers to tell one of the parents that, and they never did. The law is, if you’re living in a state for six months, and it’s a state or a country or anywhere, you cannot take that child out of a jurisdiction without the other parent’s consent. That’s the law. It’s black-and-white law. So when [Nicole, played by Scarlett Johansson] took [Henry, played by Azhy Robertson] to California, the father [Charlie, played by Adam Driver] could have made an application to have him immediately returned to New York. Maybe [the filmmakers] knew, but they just didn’t want to get further into the law for the laypeople watching it. [Editor’s note: In the movie, Charlie appears to consent for the child to move temporarily.] But on the other hand, if I were a person watching who was getting divorced, I would be terrified: “Oh, somebody can just take my kid.” I was really surprised, because everything else is so accurate and well-done and thoughtful.

How did the Laura Dern character, Nora, strike you?

The lawyers were funny and on-point and aggressive. She was excellent, I thought, as a lawyer. Every matrimonial attorney has a style, and I actually thought that they were trying to—do you know Laura Wasser? I had a feeling that they were trying to portray her as Laura Wasser. [Editor’s note: Laura Wasser was indeed one of the attorneys Dern met with during her research for the part, according to the Hollywood Reporter.] Just her mannerisms, the way she speaks, the advice, “I’ve been through this,” more trying to be a friend than a lawyer. We all do what we have to do to meet our clients’ needs. Very nice, but aggressive, very strong, the fight to win.

If I had represented Scarlett Johansson’s character in this case, I would have done exactly what that attorney did: Enroll your kid in school. Make sure he has play dates, make sure he has friends, so he felt comfortable in the environment and the kid didn’t want to move back.
Entrenching him in his environment with his cousins and friends and Halloween, I felt like the lawyer was giving her really good, sound advice. I literally micromanage my clients’ lives when they’re going through this. If it’s a custody case, I have to say, “You have to do this, this, this, don’t do that, keep a journal.” I felt like the father wasn’t getting that minutia guidance.

What about the Ray Liotta character, Jay?

It’s funny, there’s another attorney that I thought that they were depicting there, from California—you know what, I really can’t say that, because it was just typical of a lot of attorneys. I thought he was very, very good as well. He was more of a bully than he was a proponent of the child. It was a shame, because Alan Alda’s character just seems like the nice, conciliatory, “I’m gonna get this done, you guys shouldn’t fight, let’s do what’s best for your son” … it’s a shame that at the end, it turned into the two very tough, strong lawyers.

Did you find the depictions of the lawyers ridiculous at all? Are you worried people will think you’re like that?

Oh yeah, I was embarrassed. They seemed like they cared more about wanting to win than wanting to do really what’s best for the child or the family. I think being a matrimonial attorney is a huge amount of responsibility to the child. The son was somewhat of an afterthought to the lawyers. That for me was hard to watch. I always say, if it’s just money, and you’re fighting over money, and you have adult children or you don’t have children, that’s fine—that’s an easy case for me. Money, you get the forensic accounts, you do what you need to do, you fight over money. But once there’s a kid involved, especially a small child that age, it’s so important. The most important thing is having a good relationship with both parents.

The scene when Laura Dern was doing the “Just breathe, let’s be friends” thing, I felt anxious as an attorney. I’m like, “Holy crap, do we come off like that?” I’m a big meditator, transcendental meditation. I actually am always like, “You need to meditate.” I have a book I’ll give my clients. I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m never telling anyone to meditate again!”

The part where Nicole and Charlie are visiting different law offices to pick a lawyer—did that strike you as realistic?

Yes. The attorneys were buddying up to the client, like “I could do this for you, I’m going to do that for you, you can call me 24/7, I’m always available, I have your back.” That’s what clients want to hear, and the movie did that very, very well.

I’m in New York City, where there are like five law firms that do this very well. A client came in yesterday, and she was meeting other lawyers. Listen, we’re all very competitive. We want to get the client. There’s these five law firms, one person’s going to one, one person’s going to another, so after they’ve met with you, you’re thinking, “Who is the husband going to? Who is the wife going to? Who else are they seeing?” You get conflicted out—are they here for a conflict, to conflict me out? All matrimonial attorneys are very competitive about getting the client, especially if it’s a celebrity, if it’s somebody with a lot of money, if it’s a highly contested custody case, like I did a case two years ago that was an enormous same-sex case that ended up in the New Yorker. You kind of want to get the good, fun, interesting changing law case or high-profile case.

The way that Charlie switches lawyers at the last minute, going from Alda’s character back to Liotta’s, could that happen?

Oh, absolutely. I thought that was so well done. It was like [Charlie] was in the boxing ring. He knew that he was trying to do it nice, and then once he started getting the “You’re not going to get this, you’re not going to get this, you’re not going to get that,” he was like, “This is my kid.”

There was one part where Charlie’s wife’s lawyer told him he wasn’t allowed to speak with his wife. Is that a real thing?

Basically, Nicole’s lawyer, Nora, calls him up and says, “Hi, I’ve been retained by your wife, you have until tomorrow to pick a lawyer, and you can’t call your wife.” He absolutely could have called his wife. When we get a client, our firm, we don’t call, we send a letter, and we actually call it “the nice letter.” If it were an emergency—I have emergencies all the time, and I’ll all of the sudden know I’m going to be in court the next day—I’ll reach out to the spouse with a letter. I’ll say, “Hi, I’ve been retained to represent your spouse with regard to marital difficulties. We need you in court by tomorrow. It’s our recommendation that if you don’t have a lawyer, you should get one immediately.” But you absolutely cannot tell them that they can’t speak to their spouse, because they always can.

Do you all really attack each other in conference rooms and then break for lunch and suddenly act like friends again?

That was another part that made me quiver because that’s actually true. I was doing depositions last week and we’re interposing and everybody’s really nasty, and then we’re off the record and we’re like, “Does anybody want salads? Do you want a veggie burger?”

How common is the trajectory like the one in the movie, where the couple starts off wanting to be nice and then everything gets really contentious?

I’d say 30 percent of my cases, if not more. Everybody thinks they’re going to have a nice divorce, unless it’s horrific.

Is it common that in heterosexual divorces, clients will choose a lawyer of their same gender?

No. Sometimes it’s the reverse. I actually represent more men than women. I just think it ends up becoming reputation. You represent a guy, he’s first of his friends … I don’t really think that in this day and age people do gender. I think that a man who wants custody usually will seek out a woman, just to make it a little softer. When I started, and I’ve been doing this since 1996, it was more male with the male lawyer, female with the female lawyer, but now I just feel like it’s blended.

Has there been much discussion of this movie among your colleagues and clients?

Two clients now, one told me they were going to see it, and another client told me they don’t want to see it. They feel like they’re living it.