“Married Life,” the third feature from Ira Sachs, marks a major departure for the Memphis-born filmmaker. The first of his movies to take place away from his native South, and his only period picture, “Married Life” stakes out new thematic ground for a director whose previous efforts, “The Delta” and “Forty Shades of Blue,” focused resolutely on outsiders, people on the margins trying to navigate their way through an unfamiliar, unfriendly, and even hostile social environment. By contrast, “Married Life,” tackles a far more commonplace — and rather banal — subject: suburban heterosexual partnership and the mysterious, often unspoken undercurrents that both threaten and sustain ostensibly happy marriages.
“Married Life” opens much like an episode of “Desperate Housewives,” complete with a winky, nudgy animated title sequence and a dreadful voiceover from a supporting character (here, Pierce Brosnan‘s Richard Langley), but these initially arch shadings become less pronounced as the film veers into romantic melodrama territory: It’s late 1949, and Harry (Chris Cooper) has fallen for the beautiful Kay Nesbitt (Rachel McAdams), despite being pleasantly (if not happily) married to Pat (Patricia Clarkson). Harry takes Richard into his confidence, resolving to find a way out of his marriage. Things get dicier when Richard also falls for Kay, and then discovers that Pat has her own extracurricular activities. And so we’re left with a many-sided love polygon made all the more complicated by postwar suburban social and sexual mores.
Were all this not enough, Sachs and cowriter Oren Moverman (following the lead of John Bingham‘s 50-year-old novel source material “Five Roundabouts to Heaven“) contrive a Hitchcockian subplot in which Harry resolves to murder Pat, to spare her the pain a divorce would cause. This twist is clumsily motivated in an awkward scene in which Harry picks up a bereaved hitchhiker, and neither Sachs nor Cooper manage to sell it. Though Cooper is a marvelous actor, his screenwriters strand him by failing to ground his decision-making in anything resembling believability; it’s a problem endemic to all of the film’s characters. Sachs and Moverman never commit themselves to psychological realism, and so Harry, Pat, Kay, and Richard become more ideal types than compelling people, projections conjured by their screenwriters to move the plot, make a point, or evoke a past sensibility, and as a result, none of the actors register except Clarkson, whose radiant screen presence translates in even the most underwritten of roles.
“Married Life” falls somewhere between parodic pastiche and straightforward narrative. Like Todd Haynes‘ “Far from Heaven,” it filters its period details through classical Hollywood genre while nevertheless striving for emotional resonance. Where Haynes pulled off this nearly impossible gambit, though, Sachs falls short on both counts. “Married Life” feels put-on just as “Far from Heaven” did (“I’m pooped,” sighs Kay after a night on the town, in much the same manner that Julianne Moore’s Cathy would exclaim, “Oh, Jiminy!”), but Sachs’s comedic self-consciousness goes further in undermining his seriousness of purpose. When Pat contemplates leaving Harry, she speculates, “He may start drinking…and his clothes would all go to pot!” While there’s nothing wrong, in principal, with a little ironic distance, it’s harder to forgive the film’s erratic tonal shifts. Too often, Sachs directs serious scenes with glib detachment and dramatizes silly twists and turns with overwrought earnestness. As lovely as the production design and costumes are, and as much obvious craft is on display throughout, “Married Life” never really resolves this tension, and so it never achieves artistic coherence.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and manager of education programs at the Museum of the Moving Image.]