“Did we build our happiness on the unhappiness of others?” Each able-bodied participant in the sexual roundelay of Ira Sachs’s Married Life airs this moral uncertainty aloud at some point, and only Pierce Brosnan’s smarmy Richard, via voiceover narration, provides a coherent follow-up: “Well, that’s for you to judge.” Of course, that you is the audience, for this is a film that directs all its energy outward, with a wink and a nod at us clued-in contemporary folk who hold ourselves above these sorry homewrecking fools in their period decor. Married Life is a hermetic, sardonic, downright chilly production, vaguely in debt to the surface sparkle of Douglas Sirk’s postwar melodramas but lacking even an ounce of their compassion. Even Rainer Werner Fassbinder, by most accounts a tyrant and obsessive maniac, found a way to channel Sirk’s humanism through a wall of alienation effects. But when the characters in Married Life cry out for help, the entire mise-en-scène stifles them with irony.
Returning home from work to a 1950s suburban milieu akin to that of Richard Yates’s novel Revolutionary Road, middle-aged Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) faces a slightly unconventional conundrum. His marriage to Pat (Patricia Clarkson) is only physically satisfying—though we never see the evidence—and he has turned to Kay (Rachel McAdams), a young war widow for emotional sustenance. After Harry invites Kay to lunch to meet his pal Richard, the bachelor begins pursuing the widow for himself. Meanwhile, Pat has taken a lover of her own, a fact that Richard discovers inadvertently, prompting the spoken thought that “I knew enough to set them all free.” He tells the audience this by way of stoking the suspense, for Harry has decided to murder his wife.
Allowing the voice of Brosnan—who attempts a Double Indemnity-era Fred MacMurray—to punctuate the story with observations from on high is a clumsy narrative choice; he only reinforces the schematic doll-house nature of the plot by remaining above the fray. Richard is the only character here who doesn’t risk much emotionally; he just has a good ol’ yarn to spin. The effect is like reading Crime and Punishment without gaining access to Raskolnikov’s consciousness. Married Life offers the audience plenty of musical cues and a-ha revelations, but completely seals off its characters from emotional connection. One obvious problem is the casting: However talented, Cooper is such a chilly actor that he seems to be playing an F.B.I. boss even on the rare occasions when he isn’t, and Brosnan still doesn’t display enough vulnerability to anchor any story. Fassbinder would have focused most of his attention on Clarkson’s housewife, but Married Life relegates her to a powerless pawn in a wicked game.
The title is cheeky, of course; Married Life is only interested in its own ironic machinations, which is especially unfortunate arriving upon the heels of Sachs’s previous film, the beautifully observed drama of love and infidelity Forty Shades of Blue. Casting aside that film’s Sundance-style naturalism, Sachs has unwisely fashioned a movie enamored of its own synthetic movieness. There’s nothing wrong with that on principle, but his creative talents are not the same as those of a revisionist like Todd Haynes, who pulled off a gloriously synthetic Sirk homage with Far from Heaven. Instead, he has given us an ugly film about ugly people without even providing an entry point to engage with its ugliness. Everyone is cheated, especially the audience.