Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sundance 2010: For Better and For Worse

Posted By on January 28, 2010, 8:26 AM

If you’re a married person, I suspect it often feels as though movies have forgotten you exist. Love stories generally are about what happens when boy meets girl, not what happens after the happily ever after. But at Sundance, every once in a while a filmmaker will realize that there’s some fascinating drama and/or comedy to be found in the lives of husbands and wives. ---

At times, it seemed like writer/director Katie Aselton was on the verge of a classic romantic comedy premise in The Freebie. Then it seemed like she was on the verge of a perfectly heartbreaking romantic drama premise. And then neither one quite came to pass. Her protagonists are Darren (Dax Shepard) and Annie (Aselton), happily married for seven years except for a lull in their sex life. So they come up with an idea to spice things up: On one evening, both of them will get a chance for a repercussion-free one-night-stand. The opening conversations zing with some hilarious relationship chatter, and Aselton does a great job of establishing the sweet, simple routines of Darren and Annie’s life together. But she never seems entirely clear what she wants to do with the concept; she plays around with out-of-sequence chronology, and employs enough space-holder scenes and montages to make even 78 minutes feel somewhat padded. Credit to Aselton for creating two sympathetic, flawed characters, but the screenplay containing them feels two drafts short of its real potential.

It could have felt like just another affected indie-drama gimmick, but Derek Cianfrance’s use of split chronology in Blue Valentine proves crucial to this heartbreaking story of a dissolving marriage. When we first meet Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), it’s clear that all isn’t sun and roses between them; as we flash back four years earlier to the start of their relationship, it becomes clearer how they may have been doomed from the start. Both leads pitch their performances brilliantly—Gosling as a simple guy who never overthinks his simple satisfaction in his life, Williams as a woman whose ambitions were forever altered. But the genius of Cianfrance’s screenplay is watching the tug of war between the moments of affection it’s clear they still share, and the unsteady foundation that renders that affection too little to sustain a marriage. The pace drags occasionally, but it would have been hard to add pep in an organic way to a story brimming over with the sadness of a couple built on good intentions.

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