Without a Hitch, Swank Married Life Puts Brosnan on McAdams’ Tail

Running Time 90 minutes
Written by Ira Sachs and Oren Moverman
Directed by Ira Sachs
Starring Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams and Pierce Brosnan

The masks we all wear to hide our true intentions in matters of the heart are cannily exposed in Ira Sachs’ compactly directed, superbly acted Married Life. In this postwar period piece replete with great 1940’s cars, clothes and suburban organdy, domestic bliss is discreetly balanced with a simmering tale of jealousy, betrayal, adultery and murderous plans most foul. Four wonderful actors form a stylish equation as finely tuned as a string quartet.

In a lovely departure from his usual roles as rough-hewn neurotics whose faces need sanding, Chris Cooper plays Harry, a nerdy, middle-aged husband in the grip of male menopause whose happy marriage to his doting wife, Pat (the fabulous Patricia Clarkson), goes stale when he meets Kay, a gorgeous blonde 30 years younger (Rachel McAdams, who looks great in a June Allyson pageboy). Cowardly Harry wants to get rid of Pat without hurting her feelings, so he turns for advice to his carefree Manhattan bachelor pal Rich (Pierce Brosnan), who has been down every road before, and always knows the detours. Rich makes a couple of discoveries of his own: one is an accidental visit to the country that catches the loyal Pat in the arms of another man, the other is Kay. One look at this soulful Clairol ad and Rich is in love himself. Pat wouldn’t mind ridding herself of marriage, either, but spares Harry the pain of divorce. Rich, who is head over heels for Kay, would like to get rid of them both. The two buddies find themselves driven to villainy by their desire for the same woman. Murder is the only answer, and since Pat suffers from chronic indigestion, replacing her stomach powder with an overdose of aspirin could be fatal. Clearly, we are heading into Hitchcock territory.

This is interesting, since the very same story (based on a pulp novel by John Bingham) was a 1962 installment of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour called “The Tender Poisoner” with Dan Dailey, Jan Sterling and Howard Duff; it used photo-developing chemicals instead of aspirin. But the basic plot twists remain the same. After naïve Harry makes the dumb mistake of leaving lonely Kay in a remote cottage in the care of dashing, roguish Rich, she dumps him, and he’s got to beat the clock to get home before Pat swallows the lethal dose. Meanwhile, brainy, indestructible Pat, who is not as lovable and devoted as everyone thinks, has duplicitous plans of her own. What happens next is humorous, suspenseful and very entertaining. The accomplished actors are flawless: as one of the two competing lotharios, Mr. Cooper obscures a volcano of conflicting obsessions and tortured emotions behind a facade of nobility; Mr. Brosnan, a far cry from 007, is wry, suave and jealous to the verge of lunacy. Ms. McAdams, who bowled me over in the underrated Christmas movie The Family Stone, is a dream walking, and the always unpredictable Ms. Clarkson raises the tension level several notches on her own as she adroitly handles a myriad of deceptions with beguiling cool. Mr. Sachs directs them all with a keen appreciation of the space they need for character evaluation, and his script (co-written with Oren Moverman) makes even the lengthy dialogue scenes plausible and natural. Classic clips from My Favorite Husband and Martin Kane, Private Eye lend period flavor, and the soundtrack by Kay Starr, Doris Day and Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” doesn’t hurt, either. Stylish without being overly stylized, intelligent without being boring, Married Life is a classy throwback to the good old days when subtlety meant something at the movies and watching Hitchcock was a good reason to stay home.