The biggest problem with “Married Life”, the movie not the state of existence, is the tone set by its title. Before even setting foot in the theatre, your mind is filled with preconceived notions about the likelihoods the film will deliver. You cannot expect a film called “Married Life” to show long term couples just as happy now as they were when they first met. In fact, in these cynical times, you might likely be disappointed if you didn’t see spouses abusing each other, scheming and plotting against the other or, if you want to be old fashioned, just plain cheating on each other. Perhaps to offset these expectations, writer/director, Ira Sachs, sets his story in the 1940’s, a supposedly simpler time when people were married and stayed that way despite their personal unhappiness. Even a setting as delicately composed as this one is not a good enough disguise for its contemporary sensibility. The film’s fate seems sealed as soon as the opening credits begin to roll. Similar in design and manner to television’s “Desperate Housewives”, a show that has built its reputation on couples scheming, they seem to announce Sach’s intention to give us exactly what we expect. Only when the final animated frame settles on a city skyline and you expect the real thing to take its place, Sachs reveals that it is in fact a reflection. With the lens pointing inward now, I wonder if I’ve spoken too soon.
Like the beginning of a marriage, for a while, it is good. The strings of the score swell and sweep you up into the sentiment like a warm wind taking you for a dance in the sky overlooking a quiet family-friendly suburban street. This particular street is home to Harry and Pat Allen (Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson). The two have been married for what might as well be forever and they still cherish and respect each other but whether they still love each other is a question that looms over their lives like a heavy cloud. Harry believes that love is defined by the desire to give constantly to the other person. Pat believes that love is sex. Despite their definitions being categorically on different pages, they are a solid, functional couple. However, Harry has found another woman, Kay (Rachel McAdams in a refreshing return that is more tender and vulnerable than past performances) for whom continuously being doted on is the perfect compliment to her lonely life. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that she is younger and beautiful but Harry conveniently avoids seeing this as the motivating factor for his affection.
And so Harry finds himself in quite the pickle. He doesn’t want to burden his wife with the embarrassment of a divorce but yet he cannot deny that he is no longer in love with her. Harry is a sensible businessman who lives his life with order and reason and is still able to embrace his more romantic sensibility, wanting his life to embody the love he feels. He racks his brain to come up with the tidiest, most logical solution to his dilemma and somehow, the best plan he can come up with is to kill his wife. He rationalizes that this will cause the least amount of pain to all involved, including his children. Is it me or is this the least rational course of action? Essentially, this becomes “Married Life”’s main storyline and as it is ridiculous in concept, it also serves to undermine the intelligence of what was otherwise a fairly engaging film. Even Sachs seems unsure of this whole direction as he throws in a couple of painfully obvious scenes about how death can take away misery rather than add to it. If Sachs isn’t buying it, I’m not sure how he thought anyone else would.
Despite its shortcomings, “Married Life” does plant a few seeds of wisdom in its perfectly tended garden. The banalities of spending every day of your life with the same person are accepted by most of the characters as a perfectly normal piece of the pie. With decades past between their time and ours, have we really changed all that much? There are so many things happening and left unsaid in any marriage with both partners none the wiser. Subsequently, we have fine-tuned an uncanny ability to exist in a state of comfortable misery. We may look elsewhere for distraction but so many never walk away from what they know isn’t working. Applying that same logic makes sitting through “Married Life” entirely acceptable while you wonder what’s playing next door.
Review by Joseph Bélanger