Married Life (2008) dir. Ira Sachs
Starring: Chris Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Rachel McAdams, Patricia Clarkson
There’s much good talent wasted in “Married Life”, a 50's period film about a philandering husband who conspires to off his wife. Hitchcock or the Coen Bros would make mince meat with the script. Mr. Sachs’s film is just an unformed slab of raw beef.
Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) is unhappy in his marriage. In fact he already has a mistress, a gorgeous gal half his age, Kay (Rachel McAdams). Harry confides in his buddy, Richard (Pierce Brosnan), about his other woman. But when Richard first meets Kay, he is instantly smitten with her as well. Unbeknownst to Harry, Richard quietly subverts their relationship by befriending Kay and gradually stealing her away from him.
Meanwhile Harry’s wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) is also having an affair with a local studmuffin played by David Wenham. Unfortunately, Harry, thinking Pat is dedicated to him and couldn't take the news, decides to poison and kill her instead of just telling Kay the truth. Since no one knows each other’s true feelings, it becomes a complex game of domestic deception.
The central plot point is Harry’s decision to kill his wife. But it’s not an act of desperation, it stems from his lack of courage to tell Pat he’s not in love with her. It’s a big stretch of reality, which isn’t surmountable for Hollywood, but a dose of humour is needed to smooth over the logic.
This is Alfred Hitchcock territory. “Strangers on a Train” or “Dial M for Murder” were not comedies, but had a cinematic cleverness to their murder plans which elevated the situation beyond common sense reality. Sachs doesn’t have the chutzpah to pull it off. The story is designed to be character-driven, except Harry, Kay, Richard and Pat are portrayed as 'movie characters' as opposed to real people, and so there's a major disconnect.
Chris Cooper, a great actor, is unfortunately trapped with a fine performance in a bad film. Harry is deeply conflicted and frustrated, and so his decisions are clouded by his personal frailties. It’s a great characteristic for a protagonist to have, but the events are executed by Sachs with dullness, Cooper’s talent is wasted. Cooper gives a tremendous performance in the climatic scene as he’s about to find out if his wife is dead or not. His reaction is astonishing – something which will unfortunately be lost and little seen by anybody.
Sachs is careful with his mood and tone, setting the period atmosphere and getting the cadence of the quiet conversations just right at the expense of really hitting the film out of the ballpark. Perhaps it's too much Douglas Sirk, and not enough Coen Bros or Alfred Hitchcock.
"Married Life" is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment