The first minutes of "Married Life" are a barrage of cheeky Eisenhower-era advertising images, very much like those Anne Taintor postcards that combine martini-sipping hostesses with riot grrl taglines ("Make your own damn dinner"). The opening pumps you up, promising a smart, retro good time that the movie only partly delivers.
Set in 1949, the film's a four-cornered marital roundelay for the postwar suburbs. Businessman Harry Allen (Chris Cooper, zipped up tight) is married to willowy Pat (Patricia Clarkson) but carrying on an affair with young war widow Kay (Rachel McAdams), who's being furtively wooed by Harry's best friend, an inveterate skirt-chaser named Richard (Pierce Brosnan).
That's the setup, and then contemplations of murder enter the game. The pleasures of "Married Life," though, are mostly on the surface, in the luxe interiors, cocktail shakers, and crisp fedoras. The film settles into Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski's production design with a sigh of contentment and then shoots little darts of movie-geek bliss: a bit of Douglas Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows" here, a lot of Hitchcock there. McAdams is done up to look exactly like Kim Novak in "Vertigo" and even gets the same reverential introductory camera shot. A breakfast tray carried upstairs has the suspenseful charge of Cary Grant's poisoned glass of milk in "Suspicion."
To what end it's never quite clear. Director Ira Sachs, who made the small, well-regarded 2005 drama "Forty Shades of Blue" and who here adapts a John Bingham novel ("Five Roundabouts to Heaven") with co-writer Oren Moverman, moves his civilized animals around the board with finesse, and Brosnan's voiceover narration has an acrid bite. "Married Life" lacks the assurance and weight of the movie nearest to it on the graph, though - Todd Haynes's 2002 "Far From Heaven" - partly because Sachs shies from melodrama and the real emotions it can tap into. He's slumming.
Albeit slumming with style and a fairly sharp scalpel. "Married Life" delights in peeling back the bright postwar social veneer to expose the characters' hidden agendas, and if this is a mystery movie, the mystery is other people. Yet there's a blurriness to the film that extends to the uncertain performances and dialogue scenes that don't know when to end. Brosnan almost gets by on his brittle charm and McAdams is a bottle-blond beauty Hitch would have pined for (she's as tremulous as Novak, and as duplicitous), but Cooper never convincingly finds Harry's pulse, and the gifted Clarkson is stranded in a role that barely makes sense.
Sachs skips through the fields of genre to end up at a surprisingly unsurprising place: Love is confusing, so love the one you're with. Earlier, though, "Married Life" has sounded a harsher note. Repeating a line that crops up throughout the film, one character says "We can't build our happiness on the unhappiness of other people." To which another character curtly replies, "What other way is there?"
There's a tough movie in that sentiment, and Sirk or Billy Wilder could have done something with it. Sachs still has a ways to go.