Thursday, April 3, 2008

Married Life: Rather unhappy

Married Life (2008) • View trailer for Married Life
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and rather harshly, for disquieting plot elements
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.3.08
Buy DVD: Married Life • Buy Blu-Ray: Married Life (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

Married Life isn't tastelessly whimsical enough to be taken as a black comedy, but it's also too arch to be regarded as a serious psychological drama.

Blame director/co-writer Ira Sachs, who can't seem to make up his mind.
Having been introduced to Kay (Rachel McAdams), his very married best
friend's lover on the side, the swinish Richard (Pierce Brosnan) decides that he
wants this enchanting creature for himself. He thus begins taking her out on
the town; Kay's enjoyment of this new attention naturally calls her intentions
into question. Ultimately, though, these characters — and all the others in
this film — are too blasé for us to care one way or the other.

The problem also can be traced to Pierce Brosnan, whose raised-eyebrow performance and mordant off-camera narration belong in another film. (Let's face it: Nobody smirks like Brosnan.) Every appearance of his deviously roguish character hints at snarky behavior to come, but he's the only one operating in that realm.

Co-stars Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson and Rachel McAdams remain resolutely straight, and we wait in vain for some ingenious plot twists to erupt in the third act.

But they never come.

Indeed, enduring this increasingly dull and dour film to its bitter conclusion produces nothing but disappointment: We slogged through all that for this?

Sachs and co-writer Oren Moverman, adapting a little-known novel by John Bingham — whose major claim to fame, these days, was to have served as the real-life model for John Le Carre's George Smiley — apparently wish to establish a premise and then build a level of playful suspense that Alfred Hitchcock would have admired. They never quite succeed; these characters are too staid to generate any tension.

And despite ample directorial inferences, they're ultimately revealed to have no hidden depths whatsoever: They're merely what they seem ... which isn't all that interesting.

The setting is the late 1940s; the tale is told by Richard (Brosnan), whose off-stage observations are an immediate clue that he's relating the story after the fact. His tone is mildly irreverent; our curiosity is piqued.

Richard's best friend, Harry (Cooper), has been happily married to Pat (Clarkson) for years. They've built a home, a family and a life together. He's some sort of unspecified executive: successful if colorless. She's a housewife: perhaps too intelligent to be content sitting around a house all day, but she accepts her lot uncomplainingly.

The era and general atmosphere seem to have been lifted from a John Cheever story: Everybody dresses too well (even under casual circumstances) and smokes too much, and cocktails are de rigueur after a day at the office, or when friends come over for dinner. Production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski really nails the oppressively whitebread, Leave It to Beaver ambiance: that exaggeration of "normal" intended to conceal darker behavior.

Indeed, Harry is living a double life. For quite some time, he has been seeing the considerably younger Kay (McAdams) on the side; Pat hasn't the slightest suspicion. She trusts her husband too much. Having decided to formally conclude his relationship with Pat, Harry arranges to meet Richard for dinner, wanting his best friend to meet the new woman in his life.

Kay's entrance, at the restaurant doorway, is a scene lifted from countless 1940s film noir classics: a studied pose that Lana Turner would have admired.

To her credit, McAdams seems every inch a young woman of this time period; there's not a falsely contemporary note about her.

Richard likes her. Too much. And just as Pat hasn't the faintest idea that her husband is cheating on her, Harry hasn't a clue that his best friend's eternally roving eye has landed on Kay. I guess we can call that poetic justice.

But that's not the crux of the story. Despite his desire to move on, Harry isn't a cruel man; having tested the waters with a trial conversation on the subject of love evaporating from a relationship — and after seeing Pat's hysterical response — he knows he can't leave her, or put her through the misery of a divorce.

The solution is obvious: He must kill her instead, thus sparing her the heartbreak.

Now, we viewers can't help feeling that this decision, made for such reasons, is the stuff of farce; imagine how this plotline would have been handled by the gleefully demented Brits who brought us Death at a Funeral. But Sachs directs Cooper in a manner that leaves no room for caprice; Harry is resolutely serious, tediously methodical. Absent any sense of humor, then, we're forced to regard him as a reptilian monster ... which rather works against the impish charm Brosnan injects every time he enters the frame.

As for Kay ... well, we never do get a bead on her.

McAdams certainly looks the part, but Kay is impossible to read. Scheming gold-digger? Heartless marriage-wrecker? Lonely soul untroubled by conscience? Probably the latter, although even that's a pretty damning indictment; Kay's failure to gauge the likely depths of Pat's feelings makes the young woman a rather shallow "prize" for Harry's planned new future.

"One cannot build a life of happiness on the unhappiness of others." The line begins with Richard, and then passes from one character to the next, becoming something of a mantra. An ironic one, since virtually every person in this story willfully ignores somebody else's unhappiness.

To be sure, the story uncorks a few surprises; let's just say that all these people undoubtedly deserve each other. But the meandering path to the jaw-droppingly strange conclusion will prompt head-shakes and grimaces. Indeed, the tag scene feels like it erupted from one of Rod Serling's lesser Twilight Zone episodes; it's that "off."

And certainly not what one would have expected after this film's droll title credits.

Individual scenes are similarly strange. Harry's aforementioned "chat" with Pat about loveless marriage is a jarring interlude; you'd swear, from Clarkson's response — her body language, her crumpling despair — that she perceives her husband's all-but-confession that he's having an affair. And yet no, it becomes clear later that Pat still hasn't tumbled to the truth.

Which leaves us to wonder: What else could she possibly think Harry was telling her?

Sachs also echoes Hitchcockian moments, far too deliberately to be accidental. Chunks of Harry's plan to poison Pat are lifted from both Suspicion and Notorious. Harry has a really odd — and pointless — late-night encounter with two cops, who complain about his car's malfunctioning taillight; the moment is milked for the same sort of suspense Hitch extracted from One More Mile to Go, one of the better episodes from his popular TV series.

In this case, though, the "tension" is completely false and goes nowhere.

I kept expecting Married Life to turn clever or comical; Sachs' teasing directorial tone keeps promising something (anything!) more.

Never happens.

Sachs claims, in the film's press notes, that he wanted to use this "outrageous plot" to make a picture "that spoke gently and honestly about the complexities and intricacies of marriage and intimate life."

He missed by a mile. The plot isn't outrageous enough by half, and if Sachs honestly believes these characters accurate represent real married people, I wouldn't want to spend time with any of his friends.

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