June 21, 2009

MOVIES: Married Life (2007, Ira Sachs)

Equal parts Hitchcock and Sirk, Married Life never quite makes up its mind whether it wants to smirk at melodrama or to be melodrama. Despite the tonal uncertainty, though, a talented cast makes the movie worth a rental.

It's 1949, and timid Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) has embarked on an affair with a young war widow (Rachel McAdams). Harry introduces Kay to his best friend, Richard (Pierce Brosnan), and tells him that he plans to leave his wife, Pat (Patricia Clarkson), to be with Kay. Try though he might, though, Harry just can't bring himself to break the news to Pat. He is so convinced of her devotion to hiim, and so certain that a divorce would devastate her, that he finally comes to the conclusion that the kinder thing to do -- the only decent thing to do, really -- is to kill his wife instead.

That's a premise that could make for a terrific dark comedy, and there are moments that live up to that potential; a scene in which Harry buys poison at a photo shop, for instance, generates precisely timed nervous titters. But too often, the movie wallows in sentiment, never enjoying the horrible wrongness of Harry's plan, trying instead to convince us that he really is a nice guy at heart.

Still, the performances here are superb. Cooper, getting a chance to play more of a milquetoast than usual, makes the most of the opportunity; he's a man who can't hide anything, and every emotion flashes across his doughy face. Clarkson finds every subtlety in the role of a woman who's not entirely happy in her marriage, but who believes that her husband needs her and has found ways to cope.

Best of all is Brosnan, as the playboy best friend (had the movie actually been made in 1949, James Mason would have played the role). Brosnan is at his best playing the cad, and nearly all of the moments that most live up to the movie's potential come from him.

McAdams is the weak link. She's a promising young actress, but not quite up to the level of her three co-stars, and it's a little difficult to understand what Harry and Richard see in her. (She's not helped by the very bad choice to turn her into a platinum blonde with a very unconvincing dye job.)

Not a great movie, but a reasonably entertaining time-passer if you stumble across it on cable.

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