If a passerby were to glimpse a poster for Married Life, the film's tagline may prompt some questions: "Do you know what really goes on in the mind of the person with whom you sleep?"
"Well, jeez," he or she might be saying. "Do I know? And why are they asking? What's this picture about, exactly—fidelity, betrayal, intimacy?" Needless to say, this film may require viewers to ask and answer a few questions—both of the characters and of themselves.
Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) is, for all intents and purposes, a boring man, even for 1949. He has a good job and a loving wife, but if you saw him in a crowded room, you wouldn't give him a second glance. When he invites his childhood friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan) out for a drink, Harry surprises the eternal bachelor and ladies man with the revelation that he'll be leaving his wife (Patricia Clarkson) for a much younger, bleach-blonde woman (Rachel McAdams) he's come to love. As the mistress, Kay, joins the pair for drinks, she immediately catches Richard's eye, and he begins to wonder if his stolid friend Harry is deserving of such a beautiful young companion. And so begins a bizarrely complicated love triangle that will unfold over the following 90 minutes. To get technical, the shape of the affairs that ensue is much more amorphous than a triangle, but "love polygon" has less of a ring.
Over time, both men come to realizations: While Richard decides he's going to steal Kay from his friend, Harry convinces himself that a divorce will simply be too hard on his wife, so to spare her the humiliation, he'll kill her instead. While at this point, the script could have turned to black comedy, it refrains from seeking laughs and instead plunges into dark, stylized drama.
Since 1993, co-writer/director/producer Ira Sachs has helmed two prior feature films and a few shorts, scripting three of them. None reached any kind of major-Hollywood audiences. Additionally, his projects have had severe shortages of star power (unless you're willing to count Rip Torn). However, given a proper budget and a big-name cast—featuring a 2003 Oscar winner (Cooper, Adaptation), a 2004 Oscar nominee (Clarkson, Pieces of April), a James Bond alum (Brosnan, Tomorrow Never Dies) and an up-and-coming heartthrob (McAdams, The Notebook)—Sachs hints that his talent is just beginning to bloom.
Remarkably, all the actors involved look very period-appropriate. Cooper, Brosnan and McAdams all have looks that tend to transcend time, but Clarkson—who earned high marks from me after playing the prison warden's brain tumor-afflicted wife in the 1930s-set The Green Mile—looks ridiculously cut out for period roles. Her gait just reeks of the '30s, '40s or '50s. Additionally, costume designer Michael Dennison, who worked in the wardrobe department for such iconic films as Sophie's Choice, Jacob's Ladder and Almost Famous, must've had a kick designing outfits for his sharply dressed stars.
The best scenes in Married Life stem from the discomfort they provide viewers. Harry's commitment to murder his wife wavers, and there are moments when Cooper is allowed to showcase his emotional range. Richard quickly transforms into a less-than-likeable weasel of a friend, but there's a part of him that's undeniably human and relatable.
The darker and more disturbing the plot becomes, the more interesting a human case study it offers. Are all human relationships, especially the ones involving friendship, love and marriage, so complicated? The film answers with a resounding yes.
Though the producers may have wished to ask its viewing audience, "Do you know what really goes on in the mind of the person with whom you sleep?" the real question becomes, "After watching our film, if you could know, would you even want to?"
This is a slow story, making it a better choice for viewers more similar demographically to the older married couple prominently featured, as opposed to a couple on its first date. Perhaps a debate will ensue on whether husbands and wives ever really know their spouses. If nothing else, the content ought to generate some thought on the nature of love and human interaction, regardless of the audience.