In ‘Married Life,’ the old ball and chain turns fatal

Groucho Marx once wrote, “Some people claim that marriage interferes with romance. There’s no doubt about it. Anytime you have a romance, your wife is bound to interfere.”

For respectable but meek romantic Harry Allen (Chris Cooper), his wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) is exactly this interference – Harry has found “true love” in a younger, prettier, blonder woman named Kay (Rachel McAdams). What to do? Divorce – no, Harry cares way too much about his wife to hurt her like that. Next logical option? Kill her. And so we have Ira Sachs’ new film, Married Life, a cheesy pic that is one-half comedy of manners, one-half Hitchcockian thriller, one whole waste of time.

My apologies to Mr. Sachs; the plot is not quite as simple as I’ve conveyed. Harry’s suave best friend and the film’s narrator, Richard Langley (Pierce Brosnan), falls for the mistress Kay, creating a perfect little love triangle, and Harry’s wife (the one who would supposedly be crushed by a divorce), is actually in love with another man named Tom (David Richmond-Peck). To further complicate things, it is a neo-noir period piece set in noir’s heyday: the 1940s. Married Life follows these characters as they deal with the conflict between the convention of marriage and their selfish desires.

One problem with the film is that it’s like a confused, awkward, pubescent boy – it may be well-intended, but it needs to grow up a bit. It has a major identity crisis, featuring elements of comedy, thriller, noir and period drama. At the same time, Married Life is far from original, copying elements of Hitchcock, Wilder and Sirk, with James Bond also thrown into the mix. The film also lacks a clear target audience. While the cutesy dialogue, cheap plot twists and PG-13 rating may suggest a young audience, Married Life is about infidelity and marriage. I just don’t know who to recommend it to. Maybe really old people.

The film has some good qualities in addition to its mercifully short length. Married Life is highly stylized, and although the characters don’t speak like they’re in postwar America, the set design looks the part. The film moves quickly at times but is only light entertainment (read: brainless), and it does employ some very talented actors. Cooper, despite being miscast, adds complexity to the main character that could easily have become a mere sketch of a person if played by Dennis Quaid.

Also, the very talented Clarkson stands out as the humorously love-torn wife who defies gender stereotypes of the postwar era. Bronsan works as a charmer, but McAdams sinks in her role, partly due to her lack of chemistry with Cooper.

Above all, this film fails because it has no conviction. The characters recklessly cheat on their partners and make decisions without justification or reason. They live in a world guided not by morals but by social constraints. The filmmaker is so focused on playing with genre and using plot gimmicks that we never really get to know these people, and it’s impossible to become invested in a film when the characters are barely two-dimensional.

Don’t try to take meaning from Married Life. The film is about sex, love, loyalty and marriage, and Sachs gives us nothing new or interesting about any of these topics. Should I commend Sachs’ for taking 90 minutes to point out that the romantic ideal of marriage is a sham? We can look at the divorce rates in America for that.