One of the mildly perverted joys of “Married Life” comes from confirming that the Hollywood cinematic marriage was just as problematic in 1949 as it is today — and for much the same reasons. And then the film runs out of mileage. Based on the 1959 novel, “Five Roundabouts to Heaven,” by John Bingham (who was later discovered to be an intelligence agent and the model for John Le Carre’s detective George Smiley) “Married Life” lays bare the lying, cheating, arguing and recriminations that come with living with the person you swore to love, until death do you part. Yawn. So what else is new, or rather, old? For starters, there’s the soft, creamy lighting that evoke a more luxurious era, the mahogany coffee tables and the plush, velvety look of the sofas on which women in tight, knee-length skirts sit with their legs artfully crossed. And with all the cigarettes and martinis everyone’s scarfing down throughout, you feel transported to one of those cigar bar establishments, minus the wine list and Diet Coke.
Speaking of which, did people actually ingest food in 1949? Director Ira Sachs doesn’t seem to think so; the couples in “Married Life” get their nutrition from hard-core cocktails, and you get to see the likes of Patricia Clarkson and Pierce Brosnan swilling them down like Kool-Aid at a block party in practically every scene. In a sense, those were the days — people dressed for dinner (though no one ate), talked about love and marriage (as opposed to careers and relationships) and women wore thick, tight belts to create the tiny waistlines they achieved without the aid of gyms and work-out DVDs. Yet, they had problems, a lotta problems.
In tone and texture, Sachs’ has tailor-made the film to resemble a Douglas Sirk melodrama (“All That Heaven Allows” “Imitation of Life”). In the story and dialogue, there’s some of the sly, snide character observation we saw in Todd Haines’ “Far From Heaven.” But whereas both Sirk and Haines wove keen social commentaries into their works, Sachs locks his characters into the domestic squabbles of mid-life coupledom. All anyone seems interested in is sex and love (in that order), depriving them of a much-needed period dignity. Even Rachel McAdams, cast here as a sweet, 25-year-old war widow named Kay, looks somehow unfresh — a flower left too long in the same vase. As for the other three central characters — Clarkson as Pat, who’s married to Harry (Chris Cooper), whose best friend Richard (Brosnan) has the hots for Kay — they look overly seasoned. When Clarkson snaps (right there in her wall-to-wall carpeted living room) that “love is sex!” to a slightly scared-looking Harry, you don’t feel shocked or titillated, only a little tired. Love is sex. OK. Next?
Harry is distressed at how his wife wants only one thing, while his mistress, Kay, genuinely loves him and is content to cuddle or chat over drinks. Still, he loves Pat dearly. Rather than blurt out the “D” word and put her through a painful ordeal, Harry decides the ideal solution is to murder his wife. (“She can’t live without me anyway” he explains to Richard.) As Harry plots and schemes in his slow-burning way, Pat is discovered to have a whole new aspect to her personality that Harry never suspected, and which Richard tries to deploy in order to grab Kay. Sadly, Kay — with her blinding bottle-platinum hair and garish red lipstick, turns out to be notably less interesting and much more PC than what you’d expect from a Kim Novak look-alike. So what’s all the fuss about? In the end, even the characters seem unsure.