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 (Chris Cooper) 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 (Patricia Clarkson). Confiding in his drinking buddy and best pal Richard Langley (Pierce Brosnan), 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 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 (Rachel McAdams). She’s a young widow and 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 could save an entire film, 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 falling apart. It’s a seminal scene in Married Life, 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 one Oscar-worthy note can’t salvage an entire story, the rest of Married Life suffers.
Indeed, Married Life serves viewers 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 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 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 likable. 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 Married Life‘s storyline plans. Instead, McAdams’ performance seems purposefully depressed, as if this career gal with an 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 sells the part.
That leaves Patricia Clarkson’s Pat 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-like 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. One could argue that our director enjoys getting his ’50s-era details accurate more than making his relationships meaningful or his characters memorable.
Visually, Married Life is a sumptuous film, a ripped-from Look Magazine illustration of Eisenhower-era conservatism crippled by the lingering 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 film? What was so enthralling about the script that this particular story demanded the attention 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 figure out how to make the references fit together.
There will 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.