The Good: Decent acting, Interesting enough characters
The Bad: Unlikable characters, Pacing
The Basics: Good actors are wasted on dull characters in Ira Sachs' period piece Married Life wherein one man plans to murder his wife so he can be with his mistress.
You know you've just sat through a thoroughly average film when you're willing to let a coin toss determine whether or not you recommend it. That is, however, exactly where I find myself after viewing Married Life on DVD. It truly is a take-it or leave-it drama set in the 1950s and populated by a number of actors I enjoy. And yet . . . "meh."
Indeed, I do not think I have ever seen Chris Cooper act poorly (though he has played characters I have not much cared about one way or another, he always seems to play them well). Similarly, Pierce Brosnan is good in almost every role he has been in and while she is far less well-known, Patricia Clarkson always holds her own. And Rachel McAdams is perfectly Hollywood beautiful in this piece, so if anything I was biased toward Married Life going in. Truth be told, I picked this one up because the DVD cover looked intriguing. Let that be a lesson.
Harry Allen is unhappily married to Pat and he confides in his good friend Richard that he is planning on leaving her. Despite the fact that Harry believes Pat is completely devoted to him and has no other real options, Harry plans to leave her because he has fallen in love with Kay Nesbitt, a much younger woman and a widow. As if to garner his approval, Harry has his bachelor friend Richard meet Kay and he makes the case for leaving Pat for Kay.
Jaded and happy to remain unmarried for his life, Richard is struck by Kay's beauty and her poise. Richard begins to spend more time with Kay while Harry strikes up a plan to kill his wife by swapping her digestive powder with a lethal toxin. As Harry makes his plan and his inevitable move, Richard begins to covet Kay.
Unfortunately, Kay is not so much given a say in the film (pardon the terrible rhyme, it was unintentional). The film is told from the perspective of Richard using annoying and pointless voiceovers. I'm not a huge fan of voiceovers and my basic thought is that in almost every context, a well-created film will show what the voiceover says. It is a poor use of the visual medium to have a narrator tell the story. That's the director's job and most of the best works - in my experience - do not include a narrator or voiceovers from the protagonist. There are exceptions, but in the last couple of years, writers and directors seem to have gotten much more lazy and use the voiceovers left and right.
Married Life is such a simple story, nothing is particularly lacking from the movie to have it presented without voiceovers. The story is very straightforward: a married man who has been married for quite some time has a midlife crisis and craves a new, younger woman. Dog. Married Life is not showing us anything we have not seen before. It certainly is not showing us anything we have not seen done better before.
Married Life suffers from its remarkable averageness. I've just flipped a coin, which has determined that I am not recommending this movie, so I might as well pan it. There are no quirks in this movie, nothing that makes it special or distinct in the plot, characters or performances. Indeed, the only element that surprised me at all was that Kay Nesbitt is given a decent amount of screentime to tell Richard about her husband who went missing in the war and after that rather weighty scene, I expected him to pop up at some point to ruin the affairs of Harry and Richard. He does not show up.
But even as Harry is cheating on Pat, Pat is having an affair of her own, which Richard walks in on. The only even remotely impressive philosophical concept in this whole arrangement is the idea that Pat truly does love Harry and she stays with him because she believes absolutely that he would be lost without her. One suspects that Pat having the superior and demanding sex drive was intended to shock the audience and make them think, but instead it seemed normal and obvious. Moreover, because Pat reveals ridiculously early in the movie that she has powerful sexual needs that Harry is not meeting, it becomes utterly unsurprising that she is having an affair. (That David Wenham, who played the white-bread Faramir in the last two Lord Of The Rings films pulls off being a more active and likable lover for Pat, is much more of a surprise!)
So, the film sets itself up with a remarkably few potentials: Harry will either leave his wife or he will not, Harry and Kay will either end up together or they will not. And the moment Harry decides to kill his wife, he either will succeed or he will not. Truth be told, it is pretty difficult to care and as the movie plods along, it becomes increasingly difficult to care.
This is largely because the characters are either unlikable or complete nonentities. For the most part, the characters are nonentities. Every character has more going for them than Richard and that's saying something considering that Richard is played by Pierce Brosnan, who usually steals the scenes he is in and dominates a movie. Despite his character narrating throughout the film, he is essentially telling Harry's story and his scenes with Kay are largely giving her a chance to speak her mind.
Indeed, after a few hours of marinating with Married Life in my mind, all I can recall about Brosnan's performance or Richard's character was that he smoked an awful lot of cigarettes. I get that, too; it was very much a function of the time. But Richard smokes a LOT in this movie.
Harry seems more annoyingly discontent than actually likable or overly affectionate for Kay. Sure, he buys her things like a television set, but when they are together, he does not appear to come alibe any more than he does when he is at the office. This is not for a lack of the viewer rooting for the middle-aged man, either. One supposes that it is pretty much the American Dream to get a woman like Kay and the viewer has no problem wanting Harry to be happy, we just cannot fathom what it is Kay sees in Harry.
Kay and Pat are far more interesting characters than either of the men and in this fashion, Clarkson lives up to the consistency of her performances. As pat, Patricia Clarkson gives an empathetic performance of a woman who is both loving and less loved than she deserves. She has a wonderful sense of body language to portray a woman who has been married for a long time. To wit, at one point Harry comes to bed and Pat, in her sleep, begins to make a move on him. Clarkson makes the movement seem instinctive and rote and that adds a strong sense of realism to that scene.
But it is Kay who is the object of affection for the men of the movie and as Married Life is largely Harry's story, much of the attention is on Rachel McAdams as Kay. McAdams certainly has the look of the time and she is instantly appealing as Kay. But it's pretty much a gimmie for McAdams: you show up looking like she does, you have the role down pat. There is little substance to Kay, at least the way she is portrayed in this film and so it seems like a pretty easy stint for McAdams and, unfortunately, not one of her more memorable roles.
Co-writer and director Ira Sachs makes Married Life look good and despite some pacing problems (it is very slow getting started and it only truly picks up in the last fifteen minutes) he makes a film that is not thoroughly without merit. The problem is, he is simply using performers who are known for their greatness and gravitas with the likes of Clarkson, Brosnan and, especially, Chris Cooper. Unfortunately, he seems to expect that their showing up will carry the work and it fails to work out quite that way.
Those who like period dramas will enjoy the look and feel of Married Life, but actually wanting to sit through the end and buying it on DVD, not a chance.
For other works with Patricia Clarkson, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Friends With Benefits
Six Feet Under
Frasier - Season Nine
Frasier - Season Eight
For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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