Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Hitch In Its Giddy-Up: Married Life

The word Hitchcockian gets thrown around all too often by critics, and I admit that I’m probably an overuse offender. Usually the term precedes the word suspense, and in these attention deficient days we rush to employ it whenever a movie slows down long enough for even the slightest tension to build. And yet while Alfred Hitchcock deserves every bit of his reputation as the “master of suspense,” applying the word Hitchcockian only to suspenseful situations is an insult more than an honor, as if suspense marked the limits of his filmmaking talents. It didn’t. That’s why in a broader and perhaps more accurate sense, Ira Sachs’ Married Life may be the most truly Hitchcockian film I’ve seen since, well, Hitchcock.

It’s not a great picture by any means, but then many of Hitch’s flicks aren’t great either. The film does have moments of pure suspense, achieved through some classic devices, but Married Life reaches Hitchcockian long before that. Elements of the great director can be found in the film’s late-1940s setting, in its wit and dark humor, in its sly sexy attitude, in its confident pace, in its visual splendor and in its deliberate Vertigo motif – from its Northern California locale to Rachel McAdams’ ultra-blond Kim Novak look. And then there’s Chris Cooper’s Harry Allen, your typical Hitchcockian everyman who winds up in a situation slightly over his head.

The situation? Murder, of course. Harry is married to Patricia Clarkson’s Pat. Happily married, or so it would seem. But Harry falls for McAdams’ Kay, a book-loving widow of World War II, and lost for a way to bring Pat down easy, he decides that poisoning his wife would be the most considerate of options. Portrayed by Cooper as a man of measured confidence, Harry is guy who finishes what he starts, and his plan isn’t overwhelmingly complicated, but murder remains just outside his comfort zone. Watching him, I recalled something Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Munich when discussing a scene in which hitmen spring into action to halt a planned bombing: “It is always more thrilling in a movie, when someone needs to run desperately, for it to be an awkward older man.” Harry’s plot doesn’t require explosives or running, but the same principle applies here: Cooper is just awkward enough, just uncertain enough to keep our attention.

But Sachs’ film, which he co-wrote with Oren Moverman from a book by John Bingham, is hardly all doom and gloom. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s tremendously playful, thanks in large part to Pierce Brosnan’s Richard, Harry’s friend and Kay’s more distant admirer, who also acts as our narrator and extremely biased commentator. Richard’s voice-over frequently speaks right to us, addressing us as members of an audience watching a spectacle unfold after the fact, yet the narration is surprisingly inconspicuous. And to Brosnan’s extreme credit, there’s a twinkle in Richard’s eyes that goes perfectly with the self-serving schemes percolating underneath his fedora.

That Married Life can so effortlessly swim from mood to mood and character to character is one of its joys. The film never reaches tremendous heights, but it never frustrates either. It’s a solid three-star effort all the way, each scene delivering precisely on its modest intent. Still, there’s at least one enormous cinematic thrill to be found in a scene that finds Richard and Kay at a diner right out of an Edward Hopper painting: Frustrated that his cunning advances have failed to land his best-friend’s girl, Richard leans back against the bar, smoking a cigarette and contemplating his next move, while Kay coyly turns her head, away from Richard but toward the camera, as if unaware of her salivating pursuer. It might not sound like much, but cinematographer Peter Deming makes it a deliciously framed two-shot, an image of such noir-ish beauty that I yearned to snatch it off the screen and frame it for my wall.

In that scene and others, McAdams is perfectly cast as the object of male enchantment. Neither she nor Clarkson enjoy particularly well-defined roles, yet both actresses suggest depth beyond what the screenplay seems to offer. Married Life may be liberal with its screen time, but ultimately it’s a movie built for the fellas. Cooper, who so often is attached to oddballs right out of the Island of Misfit Toys, takes full advantage of a rare opportunity to showcase his range. Brosnan, meanwhile, thanks to natural aging or strong acting, mutes his James Bond suaveness and sexuality to make Richard the womanizer next door (imagine George Clooney in the part and you’ll instantly understand the significance of Brosnan’s ability to inhabit scenes rather than dominate them).

Throughout the film, it’s these performances that make the experience engaging. The plot, though smartly constructed and peppered with interesting observations on love and marriage, merely provides an excuse to enter these characters’ lives. In that way the story itself is inconsequential, which might be one of the reasons that Married Life is so difficult to classify. It’s also the reason I suspect that many will walk away from the movie wanting more. Yet just because Sachs’ film doesn’t leap boldly into a common genre (drama? comedy? suspense?) doesn’t mean it fails to become something. It might be best described as a small-c classic, the kind of movie you stumble upon when flipping through channels on a Sunday afternoon, the kind of film that makes you think: “Why don’t they make movies like this anymore?” Thanks to Sachs, now someone has.

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