Harry Allen is married. Happily married. To his wife, Pat Allen. They live together, in the way married couples do – Harry goes to work in a suit and tie; Pat stays home and does the laundry; he has a drink in the evenings while she makes dinner. Harry is bored with work. Pat is bored with the house. Their life is full of boring routine. So eventually they get bored with each other. Then Harry meets Kay.
Thus begins Married Life, a 90-minute romp through 1940s suburbia, before suburbia became known as suburbia. If it all sounds a bit romantic and patriarchal, don’t worry: it’s all in good fun, and the writer and director, Ira Sachs, knows what he’s doing. Before long, the house that Harry built gets a knock from a big bad wolf – Harry’s best friend, Richard Langley.
The film explores the relationships before, during and after marriage between Harry (played by the unfailingly flawless Chris Cooper), Pat (Patricia Clarkson with a twinkle in her eye), Richard (Pierce Brosnan, more on him later) and Kay (Rachel McAdams, duly gorgeous). Unable to stomach the idea of Pat’s loneliness if he left her for Kay, Harry soon realizes there’s only one way to happiness: he must kill his wife. Meanwhile Richard, dog that he is, decides to chase Harry’s lover, Kay. The boys aren’t the only sneaky ones. Pat has secrets of her own and Kay, the most luscious young widow since Anna Nicole Smith (oh, wait, that won’t happen for another 60 years), can’t decide what she wants.
Somewhere between Kay’s initial entrance – with her coiffed blonde curls and emerald green satin dress – and Harry’s decision to poison Pat’s indigestion medicine – courtesy of darkroom chemicals from the friendly neighbourhood pharmacy – it becomes clear that Married Life is a feature-length love note to the screwball comedies of its period.
All throughout the forties, Hollywood experienced a comedic renaissance as it realized its potential as a jointly visual and auditory medium. Writers, imported en masse from Broadway in the thirties, settled into their new playground, and the silent antics of Chaplin and Keaton were superceded by the frenetic witticisms delivered by Cary Grant and James Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. Many of the best films of the period were comedies of remarriage – an unhappy couple divorce, flirt with outsiders and then remarry – because the Production Code in effect at the time banned the depiction of extramarital affairs. Married Life is the Screwball Comedy That Never Was; unbound by a pesky Production Code, affairs come out of the woodwork of Harry and Pat’s weekend cottage.
Patricia Clarkson and Rachel McAdams split Hepburn’s prodigious talents – Clarkson possesses the same exquisite comic timing and effortless grace while McAdams inherits Hepburn’s angular beauty and haute couture imperiousness. One of the film’s many tongue-in-cheek jokes is that McAdams’s Kay, with her Barbie-doll proportions and mischievous mouth, lives alone and chaste in a suburban house (her favourite leisure activity is reading, for chrissakes).
Chris Cooper plays the sort of upper-middle-class everyman that James Stewart became famous portraying in films like Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. Cooper plays Harry as a man who is both meticulous and nervous, both long-suffering and short-sighted. He’s a wonderful naïf.
And if ever a man was meant to slip into Cary Grant’s loafers, it’s Pierce Brosnan. As the suave, debonair Richard Langley, he simply runs away with the picture. I’ve had a schoolboy crush on Brosnan ever since I saw him in 1995’s Goldeneye as suave, debonair James Bond. As his boyish good looks matured – gray hairs creeping around his temples, his cheeks and chest filling out – my infatuation matured correspondingly into a leisurely long-lasting love. I enjoyed him as the suave, debonair Thomas Crown in The Thomas Crown Affair, and as the suave, debonair (and unstable) Julian Noble in The Matador. Sure, he hasn’t displayed the greatest range in his career. Neither did Grant. But when these guys don a fedora, no one, on screen or off, can resist.
The film’s opening credit sequence is a joy in and of itself, as oil paintings of high heels and floral bedsheets come to life while Doris Day scats through “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”. It establishes the deadly serious frivolity embodied in the actors’ performances and in the sets and costumes seemingly pulled intact from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer vault. Gwendolyn Margetson’s art direction is a playful mix of Art Deco extravagance and suburban utilitarianism. Michael Dennison’s costumes are classic studio-era, and like the classics, he distinguishes his characters with clever separation of style and colour – Brosnan’s jackets and vests are cut closer than Cooper’s; McAdams gets the Technicolor brights and Clarkson the pastel housepaint tones.
Yes, it’s a Hollywood movie made by a guy who loves old Hollywood movies, so of course it ends well. The boys get the girls. Which boy, which girl? I can keep a secret as well as the next guy.