Monday, January 17, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: Blue Valentine

BLUE VALENTINE-- 4 STARS

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Hollywood rarely has the courage to show the hard and difficult aspects of what marriage can be for some people.  If they do show the hardships, the depression, the fights, the yelling, and the tears, it always comes across as contrived and unrealistic.  The fights lack bite or are played for laughs and the tears seem more like crocodile tears.  Most of the time, bad marriages in films become a ridiculous black comedy (The War of the Roses), overly focused on cheating and revenge (Waiting to Exhale or Closer), or forceably over-sentimental (Stepmom) when kids are involved.

Hollywood, after all, likes their happy endings.  That's likely so because audiences like them too. As our country's stunning divorce rate shows, there are more unhappy endings than happy ones, but audiences don't want to accept that.  If you're going to show a bad marriage, they want a "kiss-and-make-up" scenario.  The new drama, Blue Valentine, from writer-director Derek Cianfrance, doesn't pull any punches when it comes to showing the not-so-pretty side of marriage for Dean (Academy Award nominee Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams).

When the film opens, we meet them in the middle of their Pennsylvania blue-collar working lives.  They are married, but distant, and are two very different parents to their elementary school-age daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka).  Cindy is an overworked, depressed nurse who has to hold everyone else together.  Dean is the belligerent, disillusioned laborer who would rather get lit on Budweisers than be attentive to his wife or the household needs.  Their adult conversations are misguided fights and confrontations that don't seem new, but rehashed from their history and always gestating to resurface and strike again.  When they decide to leave Frankie at Cindy's father for the night, Dean attempts to sweep his wife away for a hotel night away for a breather and a cheap chance for romance. 

You can tell they weren't always that way.  Throughout the movie, during their night away from home at the hotel, we are taken back at several cues via flashback to their younger days several years ago to see how our characters began.  This is where Blue Valentine excels at being uniquely different from other movies about marriage.  In most movies, we always get either the young love or the collapse, with just allusions to the vice-versa, and never both.

Dean, back then, was a high school dropout working for a moving company in Brooklyn.  Though the deck is stacked against him without an education, his dreams and initiative burst through his pores and his mouth.  He's vibrant and his enigmatic artistic potential and capacity radiates with every smile and ukulele pluck.  Cindy is a Eastern Pennsylvania high school student and aspiring doctor.  She has her flaws and share of hardship in the form of a rough boyfriend (Mike Vogel) and a restrictive family and hometown.

We are treated to flashbacks of their love-at-first-sight meeting, first few dates, shared dreams, rushed marriage, and two people who support and love each other.  From a storytelling and filmmaking standpoint, these two time periods of opposite emotion in Blue Valentine are brilliantly shot differently from each other, with those opposites in mind.  In the sad present day, the colors are drab and the camera remains in mostly close-up to show the weariness in each actor as a contrast to the real distance between them as a pair.  You are there in the faces of the arguments and anguish.  On the other hand, during their passionate past, our point-of-view is at a sunny, well-lit distance despite their inseparable closeness.  We watch more as witnesses from afar, than participators up close, to watch their love grow. 

Those two time periods and settings of Blue Valentine create Oscar-worthy opportunities for Gosling and Williams to give absolutely amazing dual performances.  Their chemistry as actors to create both loving attraction in the past and boiled-over stress in the present is remarkable.   Both of them completely pull off every possible level of married realism in the present-day scenes that, when we see them in their past years, we hardly believe they could be the same people, let alone the same actors.  If you thought Michelle Williams portrayed married anguish and restraint in Brokeback Mountain, she outdoes herself here.  Ryan Gosling has the unenviable and difficult task of getting you to like and accept the young dashing Dean when you are constantly shown the fierce and loutish Dean of the present.  Each are terrific performances in just their separate halves, but together show tremendous range unlike any other married couple of recent cinematic memory.

Overall, if you can't tell already, the story of Blue Valentine is fascinating, but a tough and tragic one to watch, nonetheless.  It doesn't shy away from the depression, tension, and stress, anymore than it does the passion and attaction.  One challenging hurdle for us, the audience, is that we are shown Dean and Cindy's beginning and can only infer what caused their present-day situation in the years in between.  The open-ended mystery and another at the end might not satisfy some viewers.  Newlyweds or daters likely won't be ready to accept or understand this kind or level of drama.  Established married couples or divorcees may find moments and points that hit awful close to home.  No matter what perspective you come from going in, you will undoubtedly put yourself in the characters' ugly shoes to analyze your own tendencies and the movie will stick in your head for that afterwords.

LESSON #1: THE CHALLENGE OF HOLDING ONTO YOUNG LOVE AND ATTRACTION-- With the two different time periods of Blue Valentine, we plainly see a couple that has lost that "spark" that brought them together.  Through good times or bad, it's always important for married people to maintain their attraction for one another.  Even when roadblocks and walls come later in life (works, kids, age, etc.), never lose that invigorating young love that you started with.  Keep spontaneity going, pamper, help, and support each other, even just a little bit here and there.

LESSON #2: MAKE SURE THAT THE PERSON YOU FALL IN LOVE WITH IS WORTH IT-- Much like the first lesson, for as much as we are swept up watching the flashbacks of this film, a discerning eye can't help but see the cracks developing early on that turn into the canyons of later time for Dean and Cindy.  This lesson title is a quoted piece of unheeded fatherly advice from the film and it's an appropriate warning.  While no one can predict what the future will bring, people can still do their best to make sure that the partner they choose is worth it and part of their dreams and plans.  The stunning divorce rate in our country is definitely helped by failures of these first two lessons. 

LESSON #3: THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU SAY INSTEAD OF SAYING WHAT YOU THINK-- As aforementioned, the conversations and marital fights here in Blue Valentine have an unparalleled feel of realism.  What you see along the way are two people who aren't having these fights the first time and aren't explaining themselves to their partner for the first time either.  A great deal of what is said is hurtful, done on impulse, and not well thought out.  Everyone involved in adult conversations should have a "filter," even if that filter is saturated with negativity.