The tone, casting and material form a less-than-perfect match in “Married Life,” a period domestic drama that never quite decides if it wants to be a credible marital study, a noirish meller or a sly comedy. The talented quartet of lead players feel oddly paired in this curious tale of jealousy, betrayal and murderous intent. Helmer Ira Sachs, whose last picture, “Forty Shades of Blue,” won the top jury prize at Sundance two years ago, appears to be working a bit out of his zone here. Combo of likely restrained critical response and mature-leaning cast and content points to restrained theatrical B.O. prospects.
The snappy animated credits suggest a fizzy mood immediately contradicted by the opening scene. It’s Nov. 5, 1949, and in a stylish and smoky eatery in what is presumably New York City, aging gent Harry (Chris Cooper) confides to his best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan) that he’s leaving his wife for someone new, who’s given him a shot at true happiness.
Harry seems almost childishly sincere about his emotional reawakening, but is downright naive about the consequences of introducing his roguish bachelor buddy to his sweetheart Kay (Rachel McAdams), a demure bottle-blonde beauty who, one surmises, fell for the three-decades-older Harry due to a need for a reliable male authority figure after the deaths of her father and soldier husband; one look at her and it’s clear Richard is going to have a very hard time keeping his hands off his pal’s girl.
Based on an obscure pulp novel, John Bingham’s “Five Roundabouts to Heaven,” the yarn heads directly into noir territory when Harry plots to murder his devoted longtime wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) to spare her the pain of divorce. As Harry is unaccustomed to such wayward undertakings, this takes a while, by which time Richard and Kay have found a way to heat up the cold winter. Pat also has some private business going on that no one, least of all her husband, knows about, creating layers of duplicity all around.
Most of “Married Life” consists of lengthy dialogue scenes. Possibly because many of these conversations involve confidential information, the thesps have been directed to speak in a muted, hushed manner, as well as with a pause-ridden cadence that invests the delivery with a stilted, artificial character.
Add to this the characters wearing heavy woolen clothes in overly warm rooms, and feverish emotions cloaked by societal reticence, and it’s easy to see the hothouse atmosphere Sachs is shooting for. Unfortunately, the result is not so much overheated as suffocatingly claustrophobic, with a set of characters who follow their desires but try to disguise the fact from others. Pic is dramatic but lacks a dynamic; one can sense the director’s intent and affection for the form, but also see that working in this stylized vein does not necessarily come easily for a filmmaker of his hitherto more naturalistic tendencies.
Additional unease stems from the vast age difference between McAdams’ Kay and both of her suitors. Even if plausible psychological reasons can be offered for her choices, the physical matchups don’t feel right, suggesting either that Kay should have been played by someone a bit older or Harry, especially, by a younger actor (strangely, Cooper comes off as at least a decade younger in the imminent “The Kingdom” than he does here).
Regrettably absent from the bigscreen since “The Family Stone” nearly two years ago, McAdams endows her readings with tender feeling, but her natural vivaciousness and spontaneity are straightjacketed by the format. Not only that, but she looks much better with her natural hair color than as a phony blonde.
Cooper counterbalances Harry’s misguided foolishness with the strong suggestion of a dignified man’s awareness that this likely represents his final hope for a rejuvenating romance. Although Richard’s professional life and background could have used a line or two of definition, Brosnan has little trouble convincing as a selfish cad, and Clarkson has fun withholding, then revealing the true nature of her would-be victim.
Shot in Canada, the pic makes do from a period p.o.v. with a very limited number of sets and costumes.