By Matt Singer
By the end of “Married Life,” the characters have caused each other a great deal of harm in order to better their own lives, and they know it. Is it wrong, they wonder, to build one’s happiness on the unhappiness of others? If it is, that makes going to the movies one of the most immoral acts you can do. What are movies, after all, if not the vicarious enjoyment of the suffering of others?
There’s plenty of suffering here, and thus plenty to enjoy. The film focuses on four people living at the turn of the 1950s and the damage they do to one another. Harry (Chris Cooper) is married to Pat (Patricia Clarkson), but their relationship chilled some time ago. Harry confides to his best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan) that he wants something more out of a woman than just “the sex” by way of introducing him to his mistress, Kay (Rachel McAdams). While Richard — who initially considers marriage as “a mild illness” — falls for Kay, an oblivious Harry plots ways to remove an equally oblivious Pat from the picture.
The film is set specifically at the end of 1949. In American cinema terms, that sort of places it at the tail end of film noir, but just prior to the major melodramas of Douglas Sirk. It’s funny how we tend to think of these particular styles as so wholly different even though these films were often standing shoulder to shoulder at the box office (“The Big Heat” predated “Magnificent Obsession” by about ten months and it, in turn, predated “Kiss Me Deadly” by about ten months). In a sense, “Married Life” marries the two forms together in a way that honors, and also upends, the traditions of both. If you’re looking for one filmmaking mode or the other, you might be disappointed that the film isn’t as dark as the former or as serious as the latter. But if you’re willing to go along with a movie that plays with convention and ducks expectations, it all works.
Well, maybe not all. Some of the angles of this love rectangle are just a wee bit off. McAdams, in particular, doesn’t seem the right match age-wise, temperament-wise, “the sex”-wise or otherwise for Cooper. Her character would seem to fit the bill of a femme fatale but, as we’ve established, “Married Life” isn’t necessarily a film noir and so Kay isn’t necessarily required to play into any stereotypes. But she doesn’t play into much of anything else either; her performance is as flat as that unflattering platinum blonde hairdo she sports. She fares better in her scenes with Brosnan, but that may be thanks to the fact that he seems to be as authentic to the era as she is clearly not. Brosnan got a lot of credit for “updating” Bond back in the ’90s, but it’s obvious in the way he wears his suits, smokes his cigarettes, and carries his hat that he’s very comfortable in a period piece. He just looks like someone from a movie from 1949 and he’s got just the right sort of ladies’ man persona for a character as lovesick as Richard.
I like the way the film builds to one climax but delivers another even more satisfying one, and I like the way the director, Ira Sachs (previously of the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, “Forty Shades of Blue”), piles on layer after layer of guilt, deceit, and paranoia and still has the guts to go for a happy ending. The characters suffer for our pleasure, and, ultimately, their own.
[Patricia Clarkson in “Married Life,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]