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Hey kids, here we go blasting off into the Way-Back machine once again. This time we take a narrowed-eyed view of the baby boom era of the late 1940’s and early1950’s. World War II is over and the creation of nuclear families where mum was firmly entrenched at home and respectable dads smoked pipes is rampant. There is Dior’s New Look, cinched waists and crinolined skirts and FD&C Red No. 2 on matte scarlet lips. S-E-X was still well undercover then, though it seems to have been one of the last decades where it was winked at for businessmen to be carrying on shenanigans with their secretaries.

It is in these sedate, bourgeois surrounding that Married Life begins. It is 1949 and two besuited cavemen, married Harry (Chris Cooper) and his playboy pal, Richard (Pierce Brosnan) meet over drinks to discuss Harry’s confession. Harry has found himself a young chippie by the name of Kay (Rachel McAdams) and like a fountain of youth, Harry feels revitalised because of the illicit liaison and retcons his entire long marriage to Pat (Patricia Clarkson). It is a marriage that Harry now feels compelled to put an end to, but doesn’t know how. Richard, in his caddish wisdom attempts to convince Harry to keep Kay on the side, but Harry is driven by the new sense of rejuvenation in his allegedly stagnant life and won’t be dissuaded. Richard can’t understand Harry’s conviction until the lady in question joins the two men at table. Richard is instantly besotted with the lovely platinum blonde and plants the seeds for a courtship of his own. Harry tries to impart the first salvo in his separation to the devoted Pat, who is understandably distraught at the realisation that her husband loves elsewhere. Ever-dutiful, she treats the news like a bad dream and goes on being the loving wife she’s been for decades. This drives Harry to pursue a more permanent course of separation from Pat. Richard, meanwhile, takes advantage of Harry’s time at his homestead to pay the winsome Kay a visit and takes out on the town as a sort of substitute Harry. Though initially faithful to Harry to the point of hero-worship, Richard’s dapper charms and clever manipulations begin to wear Kay down. Unfortunately for Harry, the wane of Kay’s affections arrive simultaneous to his own plan to euthanise his wife, who Harry believes would be lost without him.

Apparently, director Ira Sachs, had it in mind to make a sort of Joan Crawford-style potboiler with added elements of Hitchcock and Preminger, but he misfires badly. Married Life is based on John Bingham’s early 1950’s pulp fiction novel called Five Roundabouts to Heaven. From the pop art animation of the opening credits to the entire embodiment of the comic-relief character of Richard, Married Life suffers from a severe case of schizophrenia. The film couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a breezy French farce or a heavy dramatic piece, and ended up excelling at neither. Married Life actually hums along nicely as an urbane, sophisticated comedy of manners, but when the darker elements of Harry’s plan to murder his wife overtake the proceedings, the film takes an irreparable turn into soggy, edgeless melodrama and never recovers.

Even the stellar cast seems like they’re hedging their performances. Chris Cooper gives what for him is a flatline rendering of the murderous milquetoast Harry. Patricia Clarkson is luminous as the loving wife with a few secrets of her own. Unfortunately for the audience, Pat’s interesting moments never bear out and so Clarkson has to do nothing but look fabulous in dark auburn hair. Rachel McAdams, who I’ve admired since Mean Girls and who stars in one of my favourite all-time Kleenex-killers, The Notebook, is so stilted by the non-personality of Kay that you can practically see the actress chafing for something to do. When we first meet Kay, she’s an amalgamation of two Hitchcock-era Femme Fatales, Kim Novak and Grace Kelly, but all the promise of a character born as a fascinating hybrid of those actresses goes nowhere. There is one bright spot in this muck and he goes by the name of Brosnan, Pierce Brosnan (- couldn’t help it, mes excuses). At least we get to see Richard utilise some of Brosnan’s innate charm as he plays as many ends against the middle as possible in his pursuit of Kay. He charms Kay, takes her dancing and pulls the young war widow out of her melancholy all the while stealthily popping holes into her idealised vision of Harry. The audience really has to wonder how Kay could’ve resisted the suave, fun Richard over the whimpering, self-absorbed Harry for even a hot second. Sadly, for all of Brosnan’s efforts - and he seems to be the only one giving an effort here - the story levels itself on Harry’s murder melodrama and once the spotlight is off Richard, the energy of the whole film drops. Married Life is a regrettable collection of bad choices, missed opportunities and a waste of a great cast.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

March 1st 2008

 

 

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