Film noir and melodrama cast a long shadow over Ira Sachs' look back at the rotting heart of the '50s nuclear family, but his movie rarely breaks a sweat. Slow, deliberate, and russet to a fault, this quietly controlled chamber piece, based on a 1959 murder mystery by British writer and spy John Bingham, applies more surveillance than carnality to the couplings and decouplings of upstanding citizens in a Pacific Northwest suburb. The cast is top-drawer, if strangely muted: Chris Cooper is a drab company man seeking "true happiness" in the arms of a demure platinum blonde (Rachel McAdams) coveted by his best friend (Pierce Brosnan), but who can't bring himself to divorce his wife, the seemingly happy homemaker Pat (Patricia Clarkson). This perfectly presentable film lacks the passion and radical vision of Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, to which Sachs and co-writer Oren Moverman owe their biggest debt. Where Far From Heaven continually renews itself by expanding and deepening each character's pent-up longings, Married Life sews them up too neatly; where Haynes' lush cinematography bespeaks a world bursting with deflected desire, Married Life's is punctiliously period-correct. And where Haynes insists on the ineluctably American pursuit of individual happiness, however dissident, Sachs seems undecided about whether he wants us to giggle at this benighted crew or purse our lips.
Clarkson is fabulous as usual.
Opens at Guild 45, Fri., March 21. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes.