Marriage, Patricia Style
Married Life / Nathaniel Rogers
Film Reviews | March 11, 2008 | Comments ()
I am in love with Patty Clarkson. The attraction started innocently and platonically enough. In the beginning I referred to her as Patricia, but before long the familiar “Patty” was adopted, and it felt right. I began to think of her as the perfect moviegoing companion: Some actors we experience movies through (they usually become big stars, our proxy protagonists, the ideal versions of ourselves) and some actors we experience movies with (they’re usually the supporting players, in for the journey with us — sometimes ally, sibling or lover, sometime rival or enemy). As the years have gone by and Patty’s distinctive face and the slight twang of her voice have grown more familiar from High Art (1998) through The Station Agent (2003) and on to Far From Heaven (2004) — she has an enviable filmography — a true romance blossomed. Now every time she’s in a movie, I rejoice. So I approached Married Life with a great deal of excitement. The title seemed so perfect. We’re already married comfortably, you see, as moviegoer and actor. It was 10 years ago that I first fell hard for Patty in High Art. It’s our anniversary!
In Married Life, from writer-director Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue), Patty plays wife and grandmother Pat Allen. She’s married to Harry (Chris Cooper), and both actors are in fine form detailing the mundane comfort and habits of a longtime marriage that is neither terribly passionate nor unhappy. It’s just lived in. If the film were just these two alone and a portrait of a marriage that’s more complicated than it first appears, it’d be a successful movie, if not a particularly exciting one. But Married Life is more than one movie. It’s two or three in one.
The film opens with a kitschy, illustration-filled title sequence and narration, both of which unfortunately bring “Desperate Housewives” to mind. It’s essentially suggesting that you’re about to view a retro comedy. The narration is provided by a dead woman (as in the aforementioned series) but by a friend of the married couples, Richard Langley (Pierce Brosnan), who will eventually get around to mentioning that there will be a dead woman later in the film. Harry has fallen in love with a younger woman, Kay (Rachel McAdams), and decides to spare his wife the pain of divorce by murdering her. It seems perfectly sensible to him — though I think Cooper’s performance (more on that later) misses the joke. (Why anyone would want to murder Patty Clarkson is a mystery you may well spend the rest of your life grappling with should you see the film. Who would?) Richard, Harry’s best friend and a womanizer himself, knows about the affair and is intrigued by Kay. The murder plot he knows of only in retrospect, as the narrator from the omniscient future.
The tone of Richard’s storytelling is serious but winking, suggesting that you’re watching a noir that happens to have a blackly comic premise. The movie that develops from there is neither of those (fully) and more things, too: a treatise on coupling, a melodrama, and a sexual roundelay. It’s all preserved with a reasonably successful 1950s aesthetic, given the limited budget, but it tastes a little odd. The materials it’s made from aren’t exactly inferior, but it still feels thin and weak in construction.
I’m all for hard-to-categorize movies if they work, but Married Life is hit and miss. All four of the principles are fine actors, but the competing tonal demands make for an odd ensemble. Brosnan for his part plays the cad well (though it’s not a stretch) and he understands the comedy, but his narration begins to grate. We spend the most time with cheating husband who agonizes over his poisonous plan, but Cooper’s interpretation is so serious that it tilts the movie quite far toward sober drama, despite the black comedy of the premise. Maybe that’s the intent, since McAdams also goes for a quiet portrait of deep hurt. Frustrated moviegoers still waiting to crown the Canadian beauty as the next bona fide movie sensation should steer clear of this movie. Married Life is but another quick stop on her long Stardom Avoidance tour. She isn’t given much to work with as the nice girl/other woman, a platinum blonde with a sad past. She hints at Kay’s depth and soul, but the other characters and the camera are interested only in her beauty and its ability to hold the frame.
Patty, always a joy to watch, is assigned whatever levity this too-serious comedy can muster. She whips up the right cocktail of sly wit and dark melodrama and serves it with a surprising dose of sensuality — there’s a particularly fresh moment late in the film when she even serves it up in seductive lingerie. Unfortunately, the screenplay’s “gotcha” plot twists work against her game performance. They feel mechanical rather than organic to the material, since her early scenes, particularly one in which she breaks down when she suspects her husband is having an affair, make little sense in retrospect. The screenplay purposefully obscures so that it may later twist. No fair.
Married Life wraps up with a dinner party and an overly tidy conventional ending. I suspect Sachs’ intent is more ambiguous in regards to relationships than the happy “all is well” result, but it feels canned. Even movies that dare to paint dark portraits of the sacred institution can’t resist glorifying it in the end. As for my marriage to Patty, it won’t be wrapping up anytime soon. I’m ready to renew my vows. I only wish that tin, the traditional 10th anniversary wedding gift, weren’t so descriptive of the movie that she’s given to me. Did my beloved have to be so literal?
Nathaniel Rogers is a freelance writer in New York City. He is older than Penelope Cruz and younger than Nicole Kidman but ought never to be confused with Tom Cruise. He blogs daily at The Film Experience.