Nearly every review I've read about this movie express the view that this film could have been directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Despite the fact that it's a comedy, it has a very Hitchcock-like, thrilling aspect to it. It's not exactly Hitchcock but it feels very much influenced by him.
Pierce Brosnan (The Lawnmower Man and GoldenEye) stars as Richard Langley. He is a suburban businessman living in the autumn of 1949 who catches wind of an intriguing situation that he narrates us through, while at the same time tries to understand and manipulate it. That situation is simply married life in its twilight years.
Oscar-winner Chris Cooper (Adaptation and American Beauty) co-stars as Harry Allen, a fellow businessman who is friends with Richard, and, is a somewhat older man living that married life in its twilight years.
What makes this film like a Hitchcock story is that Harry confesses to Richard that he has thoughts of killing his wife. This is a common thread in Hitchcock films, from Strangers on a Train (1951) to Dial M for Murder (1954). What makes this less Hitchcockian and more of a comedy is the motive.
The husbands pondering murdering their wives in Hitchcock's films usually do so because their wives are cheating on them. The husbands have had it and become fueled by anger and hate. Unlike them, Harry doesn't hate his wife. He wants to kill her because he loves her and, in fact, because he doesn't want to hurt her.
Confused? Let me explain by jumping to the end. One of Richard's last lines of narration is, "It's funny what we do for love." Richard initially doesn't understand the power of love until he witnesses the profound effect it has on Harry.
The true tragedy is that married life in the 1940s is a lot more of a trap out of which one doesn't get easily. Perhaps the divorce rate back then wasn't as high was not because people were more moral or wholesome but because they didn't have any other options.
The stigma and taboo on female divorcees were much harsher in that time. Being a single woman past a certain age had a stigma. This was before the Women's Liberation Movement. There were plenty of enterprising women, but, really, married life was the only life for many women.
The likelihood that an elderly couple in the 1940s would get a divorce was slim to none because many of the women realize they wouldn't have many options if they did, so it's a wonder with what they put up just to maintain their married lives.
Instinctually, Harry knows this. For him, it's not just about that. He doesn't worry that his wife, Pat, played by Oscar-nominee Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April and The Station Agent) would be lost financially or even socially. It's more emotional. He's afraid that his divorcing her would cause her unspeakable heartache.
He knows she loves him overwhelmingly. Therefore, to spare her that heartache, Harry hatches a plan to kill her painlessly with poison. Clarkson plays Pat as so unassuming even in her twilight years. She's also very horny. Her age isn't a hindrance to her libido. In fact, Pat says love is sex and she wants it from her husband all the time.
Harry, unfortunately, doesn't have access to Viagra. It's not that he can't perform. He can. In fact, Harry is having an affair with a platinum blonde, military widow named Kay, played by Rachel McAdams (Wedding Crashers and The Notebook). Harry just doesn't want to have sex with his wife anymore. More specifically, he wants more than sex, but giving it to his wife is a lie he can't go through with. He's nice and courteous to her but the physical connection has been lost.
The best that can be said is that he loves her, but isn't in love with her. His fear of what divorce will bring, the suffering and humiliation, and the misery that his unwillingness to physically connect with his wife is creating compels him to plot her death.
Chris Cooper portrays the conflict and the anguish of this man so perfectly. With his face and sometimes his face alone in every scene, you feel the trap this man is in and his desperation to escape and to be happy.
Pierce Brosnan is a great counterpoint that continues to reiterate the idea of happiness upon unhappiness, as he illustrates how that idea appears to be more at work than we know. Brosnan's Richard in fact uses that idea to manipulate what ends up being a total misperception in Harry and Pat's married life, and Richard does so to his advantage.
Ira Sachs writes and directs this film crisply with a sly humor. It's not filled with a lot of jokes, snappy dialogue, or one-liners. The situation in total is ridiculous. In that regard, this film is a sneaky satire but with a twist.
We watch this man plot his wife's death and actually carry it out, but all the while, it's not an attack on manhood or married life in that time. If anything, this is an attack on love and the power it possesses.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for mature themes
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.