The pleasures of the film Married Life could be compared to the midpoint of a happy marriage; while some films elicit the ecstatic rush one might feel with a new lover, Ira Sachs' sleek, smart tale comforts us with its familiarity, routine and trust. What Married Life lacks in novelty, in other words, is compensated by its belief in the complex inner lives and basic decency of its middle-aged, middle-class characters.
Married Life is the story of mid-life crisis, beginning with that of Harry (Chris Cooper), a happily married businessman who quite unexpectedly falls in love with Kay (Rachel McAdams), a much younger woman. Set in the late 1940s, and happily freighted with the trenchcoats, fedoras, unfiltered cigarettes and bold dress patterns of the era, Married Life instantly evokes the rituals of film noir, abetted by a cynical voiceover by Richard (Pierce Brosnan), Harry's best friend, in which he tells us at the beginning, "I've always thought marriage was a mild kind of illness."
But despite the voiceover, which makes clear that criminal acts will be plotted, and despite the suicide blondness of the interloping female, the sprightly, witty script by Sachs and Oren Moverman is just as indebted to the suburban discontent of John Cheever's fiction as it is to the durable movie clichés of Double Indemnity.
As the film opens, Harry is in the throes of his affair with Kay, and he confides to Richard that he wants to leave his wife, Pat (Patricia Clarkson), but doesn't want to hurt her. Although the marriage-averse Richard suggests simply keeping Kay as a mistress, pallid, proper Harry can't conceive of such a thing. Indeed, Harry concludes that the most humane way to get out of his marriage is to poison his wife, thus sparing her the pain of abandonment.
What follows is not conventional suspense—although there is that, too—but a tragicomic tale of the universality of human needs. It's not giving too much away to reveal that far from being a passive, would-be victim, Pat is a strong woman with a far less sentimental view of marriage. Likewise, McAdams' very fine work as Kay elevates the role far beyond the gold-digging vixens we've come to expect: Underneath the peroxide and blood-red lipstick (her get-up is the film's lone design overindulgence) is a war widow struggling to piece her life back together and uneasy about being with a married man. And Brosnan, who is settling into a fine character-acting niche as an aging cad, is the worldly, seemingly superior observer who carries the narrative with his voiceover.
Married Life represents a propitious departure from Sachs' Sundance-anointed predecessor, Forty Shades of Blue, which failed to draw audiences to match the critical acclaim. Despite Rip Torn's theatrics and the unique, seemingly authentic mise en scene of the Memphis music scene, the story's Oedipal drama was wan, downbeat and uninviting. But in Married Life, Sachs opts for an attention-getting premise (drawn from a pulp novel by John Bingham, a career MI5 agent whose place in literary history is secure as the model for John LeCarré's George Smiley) and emerges with a film that is as much intelligent marital drama as sordid sexual intrigue.
There have been other recent, intelligent efforts at resurrecting bygone genres and the America of the World War II era, but what makes Married Life vastly superior to, say, Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven and the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There is that Sachs and Moverman are finally more interested in the characters and the story than bludgeoning audiences with their film erudition. (Moverman hasn't completely rejected the self-consciously academic approach, however: He scripted Haynes' most recent film, the not-Dylan film essay I'm Not There.)
What's forgotten today is that the films of the 1940s that we call noir were, at their best, sordid domestic dramas with all-too-human characters succumbing to their most desperate instincts. There's nothing extraordinary about adultery and murder, but in the repressive censorship climate of the era, such subjects couldn't be dramatized in a non-sensationalistic way; hence, these unhappy dramas developed certain stylistic features that would later be identified as film noir. Today, would-be noir directors try—and fail—to emulate the genre with crazy shadows, clownish pseudo-tough dialogue and wicked, wicked, double-crossing women.
In truth, the great noirs worked because we cared about the characters and identified with their frailties—it wasn't just the cigarettes and one-liners. In Married Life, we can't help but feel compassion for a middle-aged man who wants to leave his wife but loves her too much to hurt her, and for a woman whose sexual appetites have only grown stronger with the passing years and waning ardor of her husband.
This is life, married and otherwise, and Sachs' satisfying, subtle film knows when to let the cinematic flourishes go and let the actors take over. —David Fellerath
Married Life opens Friday in select theaters.
I bet that a faithful film adaptation of the true story behind Ben Mezrich's best-selling book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions would sure make an interesting, entertaining movie. I also bet the house that movie isn't 21, a so-called "fact-based" interpretation of Mezrich's non-fictioner that is as slick and superficial as its Las Vegas backdrop.
Presuming that its remarkable premise will suffice, the film eschews such pesky nuisances as character development and narrative cohesion. The M.I.T. students training in secret to count cards and win big at blackjack, together with their instructor and sensei Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey, skilled but always one beat away from slipping into a Juilliard acting class, or a Vegas lounge act), appear without any explanation of how or when their racket began, how they slip away from campus (and class) unnoticed for long-weekend sojourns to Vegas, or—and here is a novel concept—any backstory about the college kids themselves. Counting cards is hard enough, but good luck figuring out how Micky morphed from a two-bit card-hustler to tenured M.I.T. prof.
We become slightly more familiar with Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), a mathematics wiz who harbors dreams of enrolling in Harvard Medical School after graduation from M.I.T., as long as he can save enough money for tuition off his salesman job at a local menswear store. Enter the dual enticements of Micky's promise of riches and Ben's goo-goo eyes for fellow card shark Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth). Soon, Ben and Co. are redeye-flying and limo-riding down the Strip, gaming the gaming houses under the suspicious eye of a loss prevention agent played by Laurence Fishburne.
Ben's intrusive voiceover narration, used to mount just part of the leaden script, only reminds you of a far superior college-set gambling film, John Dahl's Rounders, a character-driven morality play that also successfully incorporated a respect for the art of the game. 21 never competently marries the two, glossing over the machinations of the students' scheme while ultimately relying on a series of false, increasingly preposterous endings, including a plot twist that is as predictable as it is implausible.
Blessed with a bounty of potential, 21 takes its winning hand and goes bust. —Neil Morris
21 opens Friday throughout the Triangle.