By Kevin Craft
Married Life devotes too much effort into lovingly recreating post-World War II America and too little time into exploring its subject matter. Director Ira Sachs does a fine job of portraying the period when suits, formality and casual alcoholism ruled, but his film fails to make any interesting observations about its title. As a result it oscillates between stale period piece and unengaging melodrama, coyly seducing viewers with the potential it fails to fulfill.
The story centers on hopeless romantic Henry Allen (Chris Cooper), a gentle soul whose wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) is only interested in sex. Pat sees physical intimacy as the crux of man-woman relations and everything else as unnecessary window dressing. She is unreceptive to the doting Harry desperately wants to bestow upon her, and their one-dimensional relationship leaves him depressed and unsatisfied.
This odd conundrum leads Harry to an affair with Kay (the very blonde Rachel McAdams), a young widow starved for the attention that Harry eagerly gives her. Harry buys Kay presents and tells her how beautiful she is; Kay bats her eyelashes and makes him dinner. The audience is lead to believe that this sort of routine once constituted courtship, but the actors fail to generate the innuendos that would suggest real passion lies underneath the surface.
This lack of fire is one of the film’s chief problems as Cooper, Clarkson and McAdams emulate characters tropes from past films but fail to bring an element of danger to their roles. Film noirs and melodramas from the 1950s possess a dark side that makes their garish styles easier to digest and their satire that much more biting. Married Life fails to do this.
Only Pierce Brosnan, who plays Henry’s boyhood friend Richard Langley, is able to breathe any life into his character. At first, Richard watches the bizarre scenario unfold, but Kay’s golden locks prevent him from remaining a passive observer. Richard dispenses with formality and takes Kay out for nights on the town, a welcome respite from her boring evenings with Henry. Unfortunately Brosnan disappears for large chunks of the film, leaving the less interesting characters to push the narrative forward.
Based off the novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven, Married Life has potential for clever satire but is mired in the iconography of 1950s. Failing to pack a punch is a sin many period pieces commit and recreating the past only works if an interesting and slightly dangerous story lies underneath the artifice (AMC’s Mad Men is an excellent example of this). The absurdities of marriage and 1950s America are ripe for satire, but Married Life simply fails to deliver the goods.