Married Life, Dir: Ira Sachs, Now Playing
There are few things as mysterious as other people’s marriages, whether they appear successful or disastrous. The downfall of New York’s Governor (precipitated, it now appears, by a Republican operative and fellow extra-marital sex enthusiast) recently created yet another opportunity for the rest of us to speculate wildly about the private lives of those richer and more famous than ourselves.
A particular focus was the role of Mrs. Spitzer, who was both pitied and scorned for standing next to her husband when he announced his resignation. Some sneered at her for not having the gumption to publicly dump the bum, while others presumed that her presence was the result of coercion, whether the tyranny of political custom or some kind of quid pro quo for a bigger alimony package.
Less deliciously contemptible, but far more likely, is that she was there simply because she still loved her foolish husband, alongside whatever anger she might have been feeling. Is it so unimaginable that she would want to stand at his side in what surely must have been the worst moment of his life? After all, women have often enough stood by men who’ve been guilty of far greater crimes.
Or perhaps she was there just to make him feel even worse. That wouldn’t be unprecedented, either.
In a marriage, after all, love and hate can become so intertwined that they’re impossible to tell apart. The muddle of love, anger, and self-loathing displayed by the lead characters in Ira Sachs’ 2004 drama Forty Shades of Blue was both entertaining and wrenching. In his new movie, Married Life, Sachs takes a lighter approach to an even darker story, one in which marriage’s love-hate dynamics hurtle toward outright homicide.
The film is set in the post-war 1940s, which gives Sachs and company an excuse to go crazy with period décor and costumes. The setting also lends a tiny bit of credence to Married Life’s premise: a man feels so bad about breaking up his marriage to pursue a younger woman that he decides to kill his wife rather than put her through the emotional and social misery of divorce.
The man in question, Harry, is played by Chris Cooper as a buttoned-up businessman whose furrowed face seems to bear out his claim that until now he’s never known real happiness. His wife, Pat (Patricia Clarkson), is serenely oblivious to both her husband’s malaise and his new interest, Kay, a sweet young war widow portrayed by Rachel McAdams. The story is narrated in voice-over by Harry’s best friend and confidante, Richard, an aging rake who’s perfectly embodied by Pierce Brosnan.
I love the idea of this movie, of codependence so extreme that it can see murder as an act of tenderness, of profound selfishness blindly insistent that it cares only about what’s best for everyone else. “I can’t stand to see anyone suffer,” Harry piously says, then buys poison to put into his wife’s stomach medicine.
Sadly, the execution doesn’t live up to the premise. What should be a mordant Hitchcockian romp clumps along with the slow tread of an art flick, but minus insights that might justify the leisurely pacing.
For example, the first time we see Harry’s inamorata is when she joins Harry and Richard for lunch. Kay arrives and looks around, spots Harry, and break into a smile so glorious that it’s clear she really does love him. We understand why Harry finds her irresistible, and why Richard does, too.
The problem is that before getting to that smile, Kay stands there looking for Harry for a ridiculously long time, despite the fact that he’s sitting just a few yards away. In attempting to milk the moment, Sachs undercuts it.
Similarly, Harry’s worry about his elaborate plan to off Pat is so overplayed, thanks to endless shots of Cooper’s twitching face, that we can’t believe even the most oblivious wife wouldn’t suspect something was up. In Forty Shades of Blue, which also deals with infidelity, Sachs wisely kept his actors’ face-making in check even as their characters suffered under his camera’s impassive gaze. Perhaps because Married Life is an art film pitched to a mass audience, moods are telegraphed with far too heavy a hand.
Moreover, the movie has an odd subtext that Sachs doesn’t seem to know what to do with. Harry’s dissatisfaction with his wife, we’re told, is summarized by her contention that romance is just a veil concealing what’s really at stake, namely, sex. Harry is offended by this. He believes in romantic love and thinks he’s found it with sweet little Kay, who, despite her out-of-character bottle-blonde Jayne Mansfield hair-do, is presented as more mothering nanny than sexy mistress.
How can we read this except as implying that Harry has found in Kay not sexual renewal but escape from his middle-aged wife’s hunger—hunger that we soon see is more than Harry can handle? That interpretation seems particularly plausible given that Harry’s itch to get rid of Pat and his fear of getting caught are endlessly underlined, but the deep affection for his wife that supposedly motivates his deadly plan is hardly evident.
And when Harry encourages a friendship between Kay and his womanizing best friend, isn’t he expressing an unconscious hope that Richard will take his place, a fear that even Kay’s girlish love is more than he can deal with? We almost expect the movie to end like one of those old exploitation thrillers, with a white-coated doctor explaining to us that Harry’s murderous impulses reflect a hatred of women fueled by suppressed homosexuality.
That isn’t the movie’s point, of course. But what is? Bits of suspense-thriller plotting are sprinkled here and there but drift away without a payoff. Comic turns, such as the characters’ efforts to get their way by flattering each other’s moral uprightness with exactly the same clichés, aren’t delivered with the timing that would make them actually amusing. When the ending finally rolls around, we’re left as unsatisfied as Harry’s wife.