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Under the Radar: Ira Sachs’ Married Life

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There’s an old phrase: “the heart wants what it wants.” True enough, although perhaps it should read: “the heart wants what it wants until it doesn’t anymore.” Whether it’s a child growing too old for their favorite teddy bear, a girl taking down a poster of her favorite boy band, or a boy deciding that his favorite video game isn’t cool enough anymore, this desire to acquire along with the persistent thought that there’s always something much more enticing just around the corner only grows stronger as we age. And it especially seems to rear its ugly head as we begin dating and discover that some friends find themselves in relationships simply out of habit or fear of solitude, just biding their time until something better comes along or realizing much too late that the person we want isn’t on our arm as we’d first assumed in the mad throes of early passion, but rather the promise of someone entirely different altogether. Or is it?

Such is the stuff of Greek tragedies, women’s weepies of the 1940’s and ’50s, soap operas, TV melodramas, and dare I say a large instigator for action in one of my favorite genres—film noir. Instead of simply relying on Ladies Home Journal article advice in the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” column, trial separations, couples counseling, or tawdry extramarital hotel dalliances—in the days of film noir, infidelity, or even the sheer lust for another turned deadly in cinematic classics such as Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice.

A self-proclaimed “ardent film buff, with a particular love for 1940s and 1950s movies,” as he noted in the press release, writer/director Ira Sachs crafted a wickedly funny hybrid of both film noir and women’s weepies of the same two decades with his woefully underrated stunner Married Life, now available on DVD. Co-written with Oren Moverman and based on John Bingham’s vintage pulp novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven, this sumptuous period film set in 1949 tells a deceptively simple story that—in the hands of anyone else—would’ve seemed entirely predictable. Summed up best by Sachs himself in the release, he relishes in the smile-inducing, one-sentence version of “a gentle, middle-aged man who falls in love decides to kill his wife because divorce would cause her too much pain.”

Needless to say, it’s the type of risky plotline sure to send audiences running in precisely the other direction to see the latest over-the-top blockbuster where the lines between the heroes and villains are as defined and clearly outlined as the characters themselves, yet I was consistently amazed by my inability to predict any and every plot twist throughout Sachs’ film. Additionally, I was mesmerized by not only the film’s beauty but its wickedly funny screenplay acted to perfection by a truly gifted quartet of performers including Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Cooper, and Rachel McAdams.

Sadly, despite playing to rave reviews as well as being screened as an Official Selection at both the Toronto International and New York Film Festivals, Married Life is one of those hidden gems that seemed destined to become forgotten. This is especially apparent when you witness the baffling marketing campaign that didn’t really serve the comedic texture offered up by the filmmakers. As co-screenwriter Oren Moverman himself told friend Ryan Gosling in a Fall 2007 Filmmaker Magazine interview entitled “The Overachiever,” the complicated “film sort of found itself in the editing,” (pg 45) which may in fact be the reason the film’s trailer didn’t exactly manage to capture the spirit of the finished result.

Married Life Trailer

Noting that additional voiceovers were written and the evolving shape of the piece changed during the post-production, Moverman continued offering his admiration for Sachs’ “enormous amount of confidence” and willingness to change things in “a really great process discovering what the film could be through the editing,” (Filmmaker, 45).

With subtly intimidating roles in films such as American Beauty and Breach, by now actor Chris Cooper has sort of cornered the market on playing a deceptive everyman whose true demons lurk just below the surface. In Life, he plays Harry, a hardworking businessman and devoted husband, father, and grandfather who reveals a secret to his best childhood friend, Richard (Pierce Brosnan) shortly into the film. While to the casual passerby, Harry’s picture-perfect marriage to Pat (Patricia Clarkson) seems to be the envy of all, his wife’s emotionally cool exterior and belief that sex is the sole key to happiness along with affection and compassion has left her husband with the dire wish and need for true love. Yes, get that non-stereotypical gender characterization—a man wants love and a woman wants sex.

Of course, predictably, Harry’s wish has been filled when he falls for a beguiling younger woman who seems to love him unconditionally and he tries to explain his situation to the notorious bachelor Richard who in his narration throughout reveals his belief that “marriage is an illness like chickenpox,” to which he is immune. However, despite this, passion and love is something to which Richard’s entirely susceptible as he becomes taken with Harry’s beautiful, blonde mistress Kay (Rachel McAdams) upon her entrance which seems to echo Vertigo due to not only the use of a green dress but also a breathtaking and unabashedly romantic score by Dickon Hinchliffe.

Committed to ending his relationship with Pat, Harry makes great conversational strides one evening before his wife experiences a panic attack. And after a fateful encounter with a hitchhiker, Harry makes the bizarrely macabre and overwhelmingly egocentric decision to conduct a mercy killing to spare his wife any further grief. Although the audience realizes far before Harry does that there’s much more to Harry’s plans than meets the eye as we discover that Pat too is looking for love elsewhere. And in a revolving door of romance, Richard has decided not to let something as precarious as a lifelong friendship get in the way of trying to seduce Harry’s girl. Soon, torn between two men, the introverted Kay with a tragic past, finds herself pursued in two varying ways via a more intimate, stay at home approach with her married lover and the boldly freewheeling, on-the-town, overwhelm of Brosnan’s dashing Richard.

Harry and Kay: “I Want to Love You.”

Richard and Kay: Date Night

Richard’s Request

And as all characters grow increasingly fixated on pursuing their own desires, the playful tone of Married Life grows much tenser and wildly unpredictable as it makes its way towards an inevitable, yet completely unexpected conclusion. While the entire cast turns in uniformly excellent performances, I was especially charmed by Brosnan who actually plays the film’s most deceptive character in the end, knowing as he himself reveals enough information to set everyone free but chooses not to for his own gain.

Yet, it’s Harry who has the most complete arc as Sachs noted in the press release since he “starts off in the beginning of the movie knowing the least about the other characters,” but intriguingly “by the end, he knows the most.” Sure to elicit endless discussion, Married Life is one of those works that in a way may benefit from its sleeper status as it plays infinitely better on a smaller screen and when shared with others, as you may wish to rewind segments, pause and chat, predict, and obsess throughout.

While it may be risky viewing for certain married couples suffering through their own melodrama, Sachs adamantly refuted the idea that it’s a cynical look at marriage, stating that to him, long-term relationships are “always a great, even noble, challenge.” And also as he shared in the release he hoped Life would be considered as “a humanist approach to a genre story, so in the end, it becomes perhaps not really a genre picture itself.” Additionally, attempting to offer up a tale to “make people feel less alone,” when viewers are “in bed and… feeling slightly alienated from your wife or loved one… [you can] realize that… [you] are just like the person in the next house, who’s also coping with these kind of questions,” Married Life is sure to play even better on a second and much less nerve-wracking viewing.

So in the end, while it’s impossible to predict what the heart will want next, Married Life serves as a wise, inventive reminder that we’re all in this together, falling in and out of love and realizing sometimes that our wandering eyes are just that. Yet optimistically, we stay tuned for the next offering—whether it’s Mr. or Ms. Right or a sensational DVD just around the corner. And while, as far as this reviewer’s concerned, I’m still waiting on the gentleman but for right now, I’ll happily settle for the DVD.

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About Jen Johans