Playwright Wallace Shawn gets as good a transfer as one might reasonably expect from “Marie and Bruce,” HD-shot version of his 1979 seriocomedy. Nimbly opened up for the screen by legit/BBC vet Tom Cairns — albeit without quite losing its theatricality — this tangy, non-naturalistic look at a Manhattan couple’s deteriorated relationship boasts eminently watchable lead turns from Matthew Broderick and Julianne Moore. But story’s oddness and ambiguity demand too rarefied a taste to attract more than modest arthouse attention. Production might look more at home on the tube, though even there it will be too peculiar to keep average viewers glued.
The screen is still black when Marie (Moore) begins venting: “Can I tell you something? I find my husband so goddamn irritating that I’m planning to leave him” — one of the leastprofane comments her frequent voiceover narration offers on that subject. She loathes Bruce (Broderick) even as he lies asleep beside her. They’ve been together for some time, but current status — both are jobless (though their apartment is comfortable enough), cash-poor, roasting in the summer heat — makes continuing seem unbearable. At least to Marie.
Over breakfast their communication is a minefield, with his every dull, polite step triggering her shrill, accusatory sarcasm. It’s a mercy when he leaves for the day; they’ll meet up again that night at a friend’s party which neither one particularly wants to attend. Marie vows she’ll tell him she’s leaving then, as soon as they’ve a moment alone.
His first stop is lunch with old friend Roger (Bob Balaban, who played Bruce in the 1980 NYC debut production), a nattering wellspring of boring anecdotes — though the two men seem to delight in each other’s company.
Meanwhile restless Marie has decided to leave very early for the party, walking an “indirect route” that leads her to neighborhoods never before trod. A friendly golden retriever starts following her; smitten, their roles are soon reversed, Pooch draws her to a nondescript doorway opening onto a splendid, surreal meadow. Falling asleep, she experiences first of several wryly baffling dreams (visualized in nifty CGI) — or is the meadow itself a dream? Waking later in a conventional urban park, she hurries on to the party.
There, the irksome chatter of a hundred typical party conversations suffocates her. Their dynamic now somewhat reversed, late-arriving Bruce sheds his milquetoast nature, diving right into the social swim. Marie at last pries him away for a horribly awkward restaurant dinner at which she springs her news in the most personally wounding language possible. Pic ends with passed-out hubby put to bed, and spouse curiously becalmed — though it’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll last another day together.
Like a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” shrunk to the acerbic miniature of a New Yorker cartoon, “Marie and Bruce” is terse, absurd, biting. Psychological realism is just occasionally in-focus, and the stylistic chasm between leads — Broderick at his most hilariously lumpen, Moore all high-strung glamour — further undermines a conventional reading. It’s hard to believe these two characters are, or ever were, a couple. Yet their interactions and individual mannerisms are fascinating to watch. Broderick, in particular, wrings peerless variations on terrain already familiar from “Election,” et al. Bruce’s bland cluelessness (or is it willful passive-aggression?) renders his blunt sexual musing after several cocktails all the more hysterical.
Co-adaptor Cairns uses well-integrated visual tricks and amusing musical choices to heighten a lightly surreal atmosphere that impresses even as it keeps the viewer at an emotional distance — and ultimately succeeds in adapting arguably the least cinematically adaptable of important contemporary playwrights.
Numerous teasingly glimpsed support characters are well turned by thesps including Julie Hagerty, Griffin Dunne, playwright Kenneth Lonergan and cabaret legend Blossom Dearie.
Sharp package’s subtly off-kilter aspects are cinched by clever contributions from Patrick Cady’s lensing and Susan Block’s production design.