Ira Sachs’Married Life (MGM) is a playful riff on film noir that starts by upending every ‘40s movie cliché. The three-martini lunch during which we first meet Harry (Chris Cooper) and his best friend, Richard (Pierce Brosnan), isn’t an occasion for tough-guy banter but rather for an unexpectedly vulnerable heart-to-heart, as Harry painfully confesses his intention to leave his wife for another woman. His bleach-blond mistress, Kay (Rachel McAdams) isn’t a two-timing floozy with mischief on her mind; she’s a stay-at-home war widow who truly loves Harry. And Harry’s marriage to Pat (Patricia Clarkson) isn’t a sexless slog; in fact, as Harry admits to Richard, he sometimes thinks his wife wants him only for his body. But Harry’s just too nice a guy to wreck Pat’s life by telling her the truth. He’s so nice that he may just have to kill her for her own good.
The shell game of shifting alliances that follows is little more than a parlor diversion. This is no Far From Heaven, the Todd Haynes mockup of a Douglas Sirk melodrama that used pastiche to expose the raw pain of ‘50s sexual repression. Married Life, which is set in 1949, doesn’t have much on its mind besides providing its audience with a few twists, some lush period trappings, and the occasional frisson of suspense. But parlor games have their uses, too. Sachs’ script, which he wrote with Oren Moverman (who also co-wrote Haynes’ I’m Not There), is adapted from a 1955 pulp novel by John Bingham, and it cleverly balances a farcical tone with some scenes of real feeling and at least one moment of white-knuckle suspense. A scene in which Harry buys poison to mix with Pat’s nightly dose of stomach medicine is straight from a Hitchcock thriller. And the first use he makes of that poison (which is the last thing you’d expect) raises uneasy questions about what this quietly tormented businessman is capable of.
As a four-person chamber piece, Married Life is dependent on the strength of its players, and everyone delivers. Pierce Brosnan, who’s less Remington Steele and more Cary Grant with every passing year, sets the tone with his feather-light voice-over narration and perfectly tuned performance as a lifelong playboy trying, and failing, to remain above the fray. Chris Cooper has a ball with his first role in years that doesn’t require him to bark orders or investigate crimes; I’d almost forgotten how subtle an actor he can be. Rachel McAdams emits her usual irresistible glow. And Patricia Clarkson, who could discover hidden dimensions of character while playing a sheep in a Christmas pageant, makes reading in bed next to a bottle of digestive powder seem like a smolderingly fascinating activity.
Married Life is a tony, well-upholstered vehicle that glides smoothly toward its destination—but despite an unnecessary and overly sentimental coda, that destination isn’t necessarily where you thought you were going all along. Ira Sachs’ last film, Forty Shades of Blue, which won the grand jury prize at Sundance in 2005, was another beautifully acted portrait of a disintegrating marriage. Though far darker and bleaker than Married Life, it also explored the loneliness of upper-middle-class American domesticity. In his latest film, Sachs is clearly having a blast with genre conventions (not to mention cigarette cases, negligees, and Doris Day songs), but the sly fun is anchored by a tone of melancholic resignation. “Let’s just see if we can get through the rest of our lives without further damage,” one character begs another in what passes, in this world, for a happy ending.