A version of this reviews appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 2 1/2 of 4 stars.
“Blue Valentine a contrived affair”
“Blue Valentine” is just sad.
Unfortunately, the film’s heartrending tale of a deteriorating marriage isn’t the only part that’s sad.
Director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance’s insistence on framing the blue-collar story through a hipster perspective emerges as the movie’s saddest aspect. Like Ryan Gosling’s oversized glasses, the self-conscious artifice constantly distracts from the all-too-real story at the film’s core.
While Hollywood is guilty of portraying matrimony unrealistically, Cianfrance deserves indictment for his idealized shots of “Blue Valentine’s” final breakup. The road to divorce rarely begins with an achingly beautiful Grizzly Bear song and fireworks bursting with metaphors and meaning.
Michelle Williams and Gosling deserve the accolades they have received for their compelling performances — she earned a best actress Oscar nomination on Tuesday; he was considered one of the Academy’s notable snubs — but their brutally honest turns also deserve a film that feels like real life rather than an acting workshop.
The movie opens as with a scene somewhat familiar to couples with two working parents and a young child: Cindy (Williams) hurriedly fixes oatmeal for her 6-year-old daughter Frankie’s (Faith Wladyka) school-day breakfast. When the child deems it “yucky,” doting daddy Dean (Gosling) criticizes his wife’s cooking. To get the girl to eat at least some of it, Dean plucks out the raisins and encourages Frankie to eat them like an animal, which sets Cindy to wearily griping.
But the context of this incident indicates their marriage is more than frazzled, it’s failing: When Frankie rousts her parents, her dad is passed out in a chair in the living room in a drunken stupor, while her mom is sleeping alone and doesn’t seem interested in awakening to her husband and daughter.
Charming but shiftless, Dean works as a house painter — he considers getting to guzzle beer throughout the day the job’s best perk — and leaves the domestic duties to his wife, except when it comes to frolicking merrily with their daughter. Frustrated and humorless, Cindy works as an obstetrics nurse, regrets not pursuing her dream to become a doctor and longs for a better life. She doesn’t say much, — Williams’ role seems underwritten, especially in contrast to Gosling’s hyperactive Dean — but it’s clear she’s through with her marriage and the only mystery is when she’s going to make the break.
The beginning of the end comes when Frankie awakens her parents on that seemingly ordinary morning with news that the dog has run off. Cindy discovers that the family pet has been killed by a car, so she and Dean send Frankie on an overnight visit with her grandpa (John Doman) until they can deal with the grim aftermath.
The burial complete, Dean sees the childless evening as the perfect time to rekindle the romance, so he redeems a gift certificate to a sleazy sex motel where every room has a theme. Since Cianfrance wants so badly to make his movie hip and ironic, Dean chooses “The Future Room.” So, Williams and Gosling get to deliver their most scorching performances in the weird blue light and tinfoil-wrapped cardboard of a fake spaceship. That’s not real; that’s the kind of thing that happens in a movie.
Over the course of the film, Cianfrance allows the audience to see the couple first come together and then finally fall apart. We don’t get to see what happens in the middle, when the actual breakdown of the marriage presumably happened. Flashbacks to their supposedly heady days of meeting cute and making romance are randomly dropped into the narrative, but changes in the movie’s color palette and the actor’s appearances make the time shifts easy to follow.
But their deliberately quirky courtship — more awkward irony ensues as Dean plays the ukulele and sings “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love” while Cindy tap dances — can’t conceal that these are two people who don’t really seem to be in love and would probably never have married if not for plot contrivances or just because the plot called for it.
“Blue Valentine” is probably best known for the battle over its rating. It was initially given an NC-17 because of explicit sexual content but was awarded an R on appeal. While graphic, the sex isn’t gratuitous but a key element in the storytelling. It becomes one more proving ground in the heartbreaking history of a marriage doomed to fail the test.