Marriage might just be the perfect cinematic allegory. You can infer so many differing metaphoric elements in the dissection of why men and women marry - and sometimes separate - that the permutations appear endless. There’s the emotional facet, the sexual supposition, the commitment and loyalty facets, and of course, the scandal ridden and adulterous angles. Together with an equal array of stylistic approaches, we wind up with a veritable cornucopia of combinations, a wealth of possibilities linked invariably to the age old notion of vows taken and knots tied. So why is it that Ira Sachs period piece drama, Married Life, is so downright flat? Could it be that this filmmaker has finally found the one cinematic category - the noir-tinged whodunit - that defies matrimony’s easy explanations and illustrations?
Harry Allen is a decent guy. He works hard at his job. He’s successful in his career. He has good friends and solid personal relationships. If there’s a weak link in his life, it’s his dutiful wife Pat. Confiding in his drinking buddy and best pal Richard Langley, Harry lets the truth be known. His spouse is only interested in sex, and our harassed, henpecked hubby no longer enjoys the act. Instead, he wants a woman to cater to him, to literally take him in her arms and treat him like a pampered, vulnerable waif. Harry thinks he’s found his answer in the good natured Kay. She’s a young widow wise to the ways of the world. After Richard meets her, he decides to undermine his mate and make Kay his own. In the meantime, Harry can’t bring himself to leave his wife, so he decides the most compassionate way to end the marriage…is to kill her. Once it’s done, he can spend the rest of his life with Kay - that is, if Richard hasn’t moved in already.
If one scene were capable of saving an entire movie, Married Life would be a masterpiece. Indeed, Chris Cooper has one of those amazing actor moments when, just with his face and his reticent body language, we see one man’s entire life literally falling apart. It’s a seminal scene in the film, the culmination of a good 80 minutes of maneuvering, backstabbing, plotting, and preparation. Again, it’s also the only real sequence in the entire narrative, and since it’s clear that one Oscar worthy note can’t salvage an entire story, the rest of Married Life suffers. Indeed, this is the kind of well observed nostalgia that lumbers along like it’s the first feature to discover the sordid secrets of suburbia. Gasp! We’re supposed to stare in wide-eyed amazement as couples cheat, friends betray one another, and an everyday businessman kills his dog in a criminal “dry run” for his wife’s proposed demise.
Sachs makes many mistakes here, none more outrageous than turning Pierce Brosnan’s Richard Langley into one of the more unlikeable characters onscreen. It’s not that the actor is miscast or misguided, it’s just that this playboy lothario is quite the unforgivable lout. He can’t wait to undercut Harry, gives Pat more than a fleeting flirtatious glance (of course, we find out Mrs. Allen has her own pent up agenda), and instantly aims his amorous designs on the easily swayed Kay like a wounded wolf. He goes after each of these targets with a determination born out of entitlement, and barely excuses himself or his amoral actions. Naturally, Sachs makes him our narrator as well, so we have to suffer through many statements of justification and self-aggrandizement. None of it matters to us since there’s nothing to identify with. Langley is more or less an insufferable cipher.
Luckily, Cooper’s Harry Allen is more levelheaded and likeable. While it’s odd to hear a man beg off sex (the scene where the two friends discuss the issue strains for credibility), we tend to buy it here, especially after seeing how our hero reacts to being spoiled. Kay can be viewed in many ways, but she’s not the patsy the storyline plans. Instead, the performance by Rachel McAdams seems purposefully depressed, as if this career gal with a MIA military husband is simply picking up the pieces of what many could see as a shattered life. Dolled up like a Vertigo-era Kim Novak, she really sells the part.
That just leaves Patricia Clarkson as the last link in this lover’s quadrangle, and for the most part, she’s an equally ambiguous cause. Sachs is convinced that the best way to handle this Donna Reed red herring is to have her play every scene like she’s barely conscious. Pat is either asleep, getting ready to sleep, or waking up. In fact, one could argue that our director enjoys getting his ‘50s era details accurate more so than making his relationships meaningful or his characters memorable. This is sumptuous film, a ripped from Look Magazine illustration of Eisenhower era conservatism crippled by the linger desires of a frustrated populace. It’s the time of hats and gloves, three martini lunches and late nights at the office. The backdrop is a clear creative choice, since the murder mystery source material (a beloved book by John Bingham) is set in Europe and begins in the ‘30s.
Perhaps the lingering question here is one of motive. Why make this movie? What was so enthralling about the script that this particular story demanded the attentions of the talented cast assembled? Even better, what in Sachs limited resume indicated that he could pull this off with the necessary panache and perfectionism required? In many ways, Married Life is a Coen Brothers knock-off without a bit of the boys accomplishment or bravado. It wants to pay homage to films and filmmakers past, but can’t quite figure out how to make the references fit together. There will definitely be an audience for this kind of slow burn situational potboiler, but for many, there will be too much stagnancy and not enough sizzle. When a planned poisoning can’t ratchet up the suspense, there is something wrong with the equation - and Married Life just can’t get the calculations right.