Murderous husbands with good intentions

By Hoang-Mai Hong

So you say you’d like to murder your wife to run off with a (much, much younger) platinum-blonde war widow? This turns out to be the rather dark place Harry Allen finds himself in Married Life. It all becomes much more complex than this, of course. This smart and entertaining homage to ’40s noir-comedy, with traces of Hitchcock, surprises by fleshing out not only the besotted and confused Harry (Chris Cooper), but also the “victim” wife, the lothario best friend and the bottle-blond with bright red lips.

Set in the late ’40s, Married Life plays with the complexities of love and what it may constitute, both in marriage and out of it. Pat (Patricia Clarkson) is Harry’s straightforward wife who maintains that love to her is sex. Harry is a sentimental creature, though, whose solid marriage built on sex and companionship is not enough. Romantic love is what he wants. He confesses this to his best friend, the smooth, womanizing Rich (Pierce Brosnan) over martinis and cigars before he introduces him to his new gal, Kay (Rachel McAdams). As soon as she walks into the room, Rich falls hard for her, too.

The stunning and far-from-innocent Kay is exactly the kind of woman a guy would do anything to be with. Before we know it, the hasty Harry jumps to the terrible but weirdly thoughtful conclusion that his wife–who he wouldn’t want to put through a divorce and the subsequent loneliness–would be better off dead. This strange turn toys with the audience and starkly contrasts with what up until that point was a light period picture of manners. The suspense is tautly held by whether or not Harry will do the deed, and how. Ingeniously, it’s genuinely believable that he really has affection for his wife and that he really wants to kill her for somewhat noble (though still selfish) reasons. Caught between it all is Rich, who could alleviate it all by just revealing what he knows, if only he weren’t successfully wooing and falling for Kay himself.

Aside from the fact that Cooper and Brosnan are probably a decade too old for their roles, they are a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Cooper, who is probably a little typecast in those rough corrupt federal agent/spy roles, is surprising as the respectable and sensitive husband. His scenes with the sublime Clarkson show a marriage still full of compassion. It’s completely understood why they really don’t want to leave each other, while at the same time lies are swapped between the two of them with complete nonchalance. Brosnan is an old hand at playing the smooth guy with a martini in hand and it is a comfortable role, though he’s given more to expand on this time around. Emerging from the Bond movies, he’s somehow re-invented himself and this role is in the long line of films (like The Matador) that have rebuffed the whole Bond veneer to great effect.

The movie keeps you guessing and doesn’t under-use its talented actors. It hands each of them surprising and thankfully complex characters that are more than the sum of their stereotypes. Overall, Married Life is compelling entertainment: complex, thoughtful and darkly funny.

Married Life opens Fri., Apr. 4.

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