As the unhappy husband in Married Life, Harry (Chris Cooper) is banality curdled at the edges. He’s a successful executive in 1940s New York whose life begins to unbutton when he falls out of love with his wife of many years, Pat (Patricia Clarkson), and into a fine, furtive romance with a younger woman, Kay (Rachel McAdams). His best friend, the roguish British expatriate Richard (Pierce Brosnan), serves as the movie’s narrator and not disinterested observer. A well-groomed swinger, Richard begins to feel that a beautiful woman like Kay is wasting herself in the arms of the dowdy Harry.
Director Ira Sachs has many opportunities to display visual flair with the lavish Art Deco restaurants and skyscrapers, the behemoth steel and chrome cars of ‘40s Detroit, where many scenes take place. The first glimpse of Kay is reminiscent of Kim Novack’s entry in the Hitchcock classic Vertigo. She’s a platinum blond with a cool but fetching smile, elegantly poised like a flamingo in her expensive plumage. But unlike Vertigo, whose Jimmy Stewart protagonist becomes captive to romantic-erotic obsession, Married Life plays more gingerly with the theme of consuming desire. It more closely alludes to another great Hitchcock film, Suspicion, in which it appears that Cary Grant is slowly poisoning his wife.
Richard’s ongoing voiceover commentary places Married Life’s scenario within the quotation marks of irony but without entirely stripping the plot of human feeling. Harry’s dilemma is darkly funny: he can’t bare to break Pat’s heart by telling her it’s over, so he plots to kill her instead. The idea that she might be carrying on with another man never occurs to him. For her part, Pat is similarly troubled by the idea of devastating her husband. “I’m not certain you can build happiness upon the unhappiness of somebody else,” is a line repeated by each of the four major players at different times in Married Life. For relationships, it’s the analogue to the Golden Rule, often broken but seldom out of mind for long.
The period stylishness of Married Life is a platform for superb acting, not a gilded screen for concealing mediocre performances. Cooper is masterful at playing clammy concealment; Brosnan marvelously channels James Mason as the cynical man of the world for whom life has become an elaborate charade. Adams is adorable as Kay, albeit the most thinly written role, while Clarkson brings emotional depth to a character that could easily have succumbed to caricature. Sachs keeps the story in swift forward motion with moments of knife’s edge suspense and surprises within surprises. The mordant humor of Married Life is leavened by its nuanced examination of the many accommodations adults must make in the pursuit of happiness.