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Married Life

Sony Pictures // PG-13 // March 7, 2008
List Price: Unknown

Review by Jamie S. Rich | posted March 23, 2008 | E-mail the Author

Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) is the kind of 1950s man Gregory Peck portrayed so well in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the model recently adopted for the TV series Mad Men: a stand-up guy, successful at what he does, every hair in the right place, and harboring secrets. Unlike his fictional brothers, however, Harry doesn't carry with him the unspoken horrors of war, nor is he a man's man whose quiet demeanor belies physical strength kept in check; rather, he is a romantic who has found his marriage to Pat (Patricia Clarkson) unfulfilling, lacking the hearts and flowers he always dreamed would be part of his greatest love affair. While most men would knock down their most beloved boyhood hero to get to a woman who prefers sex to intimacy, for Harry, this particular jackpot is fool's gold.

This is his Married Life.

The new film by Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue), based on a book by John Bingham, has a kind of generic context. We know it's post-war, and we can guess it's 1951 by the fact that Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is playing down at the moviehouse, but it occupies a physical space taken straight from Douglas Sirk and Joseph Mankiewicz productions, filled with the kind of set dressing that would make Todd Haynes reach for his hankie. Unlike Haynes, however, or the aforementioned Mad Man, there is no irony laced into the period details. Despite a Hitchcock-like plot where the pot never boils, Sachs is giving us a straight story about straight people. Some of them may be types, sure, but they still come alive. Well, at least as much as they're allowed.

Harry's best friend is Richard (Pierce Brosnan), a perpetual bachelor whose philandering is likely the reason Harry thinks he can trust Rich with his secret. The quiet man has met a marvelous woman, the platinum blonde widow Kaye (a luminous Rachel McAdams). She is a woman he can love and spoil with all of his romantic exaggerations, and she seems willing to accept them. Harry is ready to leave Pat for her, an idea Rich never likes, but even less so when he meets Kaye himself. Though previously never one to settle down, Rich has a secret want for what Harry has, and so Kaye becomes a symbol for a happier existence for both of them.

Married Life is a film about deceptions. It's the lies we tell our partners to keep the peace and the lies we tell ourselves to justify either rocking the boat or not. Even the romantic sacrifice Harry yearns for is false, as such charity usually serves the charitable more than it does the beneficiary. Without Harry knowing it, Rich begins quietly working against him, pulling the strings that will tighten his friend's marriage even after discovering the truth that would set Harry free. This only makes Harry more desperate. He doesn't have the heart to leave his wife, but he might be able to live with poisoning her.

All of these machinations occur behind the fa├žade of propriety, and so at times, Married Life is a little anemic. Yet, it's an approach befitting the characters. They don't have it in them for outright brutality. The one truly physical character is John O'Brien (David Wenham), another corner in the eventual love pentagon, a hulking, sweating fellow who Rich tells us is the only one among them to actually have "fought the Huns." John looks like he's ready to batter down the walls that separate him from what he wants, just put him in the game, coach. It's also of no insignificant irony that he's the artist of the group, an unpublished author. Perhaps he is capable of doing because he's capable of imagining.

There is a refreshing amount of conversation in Married Life. The characters actually sit and talk to one another at length, and in a civilized, intelligent manner about all kinds of topics. Every performance in this powerhouse cast is reserved and full of nuance. Pierce Brosnan could have taken a much more direct route, playing it as James Bond in a business suit, but in keeping with the film's themes, he holds back, only hinting at what he has stored away. In contrast, Chris Cooper has the showiest role in the picture despite portraying the guy who is the most repressed. Cooper's proved himself time and again to be readily capable with far more wordy scripts, but he's also surpassingly convincing as a more droll figure. Harry is a man at the end of his rope, and the more he tries to swing to grab another one, the more he loses his grip. Putting his half-baked murder scheme into motion nearly inspires a nervous breakdown, and the actor puts the tension across with unrivaled aplomb.

The downside is that, by the end of the film, the restraint that has been Married Life's greatest asset also starts to feel like its biggest drawback. The melodrama might have been well served with a little added spice. Perhaps some lovemaking or even an angry confrontation. I know the fact that the flare-ups never ignite is meant to indicate that things just continue on as they always have, reinforcing that marriage is, as Pat calls it, the bargain you stick with for better or for worse, but it ends up being an insufficient explanation for what is lacking in the movie--and there is definitely something lacking. With emotional issues full of this much consequence, there is little payoff to having the conflicts meekly fizzle out. It feels like we are the doorstep of greatness, but we never work up the gumption to go in. Thus, like the stuffy characters we've watched for 90 minutes, we are forced to accept the virtues of being merely good.

Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at




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