When I was a kid, every time IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES was on HBO, I would watch it. Despite it not being a commercial or critical success, for some reason the network constantly played this film, which starred Drew Barrymore, Ryan O’Neal and Shelley Long. The film was about a couple going through the stages of separation and divorce and although this isn’t a subject that’s typically watched by kids, for some reason, I was always drawn into the film whenever it was on TV. BLUE VALENTINE has the same sort of attraction for me. It too is a film about a couple’s marriage unraveling into a disaster. It’s a great sort of story to put up on screen because few things are as dramatic as a family falling apart. What’s more, actors love this shit because it enables them to exercise a wide range of acting that they seldom get a chance to demonstrate with most movies. So with that, we get two amazing performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who play the married couple. Like the last film I reviewed, RABBIT HOLE, this movie is a showcase for the actors to show off their acting abilities. BLUE VALENTINE is a purely character-driven film that completely depends on its actors’ performances. Unlike RABBIT HOLE, however, BLUE VALENTINE provides its audience with a whole lot more dramatic substance to enjoy. Unfortunately, like RABBIT HOLE, BLUE VALENTINE also suffers from poor pacing.

Simply put, BLUE VALENTINE is about a married couple, Dean and Cindy, who (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) undergo a marital meltdown. Dean is a young high school dropout who works for a moving company. Cindy is a medical student who lives with her parents and takes care of her grandmother. Dean and Cindy meet by chance one day and enter into a relationship after only a short while of knowing each other. Cindy finds out that she’s pregnant with her ex-boyfriend’s baby so she and Dean decide to jump right into marriage. The film intercuts between the couple’s early days into the marriage and the present day where the couple is attempting to unsuccessfully rekindle their earlier romance.

BLUE VALENTINE is not an easy film to watch, especially if you have personally undergone a divorce or separation. It’s a harrowing journey that explores every stage of divorce from the initial courtship and romance to the ultimate breakup. By the end of the film, you feel like you have been with these characters during the entire length of their relationship and so when they finally split, you feel the sadness and disappointment in the couple’s failure to make it work. Most people going into this movie already know what the film is about and what to expect. The success of this film depends instead on the audience connecting with the two characters. There is nothing remarkable about Dean and Cindy and you have probably met many people like them. They are ordinary folk and because of it, you can immediately identify with their personalities. Dean is the dropout loser with a big heart and an impulsive nature. Cindy is the girl who’s sort of let life get out of her control and she struggles to maintain her sanity as she tries to steer herself and her family along the right course. I found both characters to be personable and likeable. They’re just your average blue-collar American family trying to get through life as best they can and be like everyone else. Unfortunately for them, you also immediately see the cracks forming in their family unit.

If you don’t know who Ryan Gosling is by now, you soon will. Ever since his attention-grabbing turn in HALF NELSON (2006), Gosling has emerged as one of Hollywood’s most talented rising actors. Gosling has done a fair balance of both mainstream and independent movies and has always garnered critical praise. Mainstream audiences will best remember him from REMEMBER THE TITANS (2000) and THE NOTEBOOK (2004), both of which I thought were shit, but they were very popular with audiences. In BLUE VALENTINE, Gosling seems to have elevated his acting to a more mature level. His Dean character displays a rawness and realism that is reminiscent of Marlon Brando and the Method style of acting that emerged during the 1950’s. Gosling is captivating to watch. He brings an intensity to the role that ups the dramatic ante of the film and keeps you from getting too bored.

Sharing the spotlight with Ryan Gosling is the equally excellent Michelle Williams. When Williams first turned up on the Hollywood scene, she was the last person I ever expected to one day become a serious actress. The first movie I and probably most others saw her in was DICK (1999), a light comedy with Kirsten Dunst that ended up surprising me in how sophisticated it actually was given its title and premise. Over the past decade, Michelle Williams has carved a nice little niche for herself and the industry has finally begun to take serious notice of her. Although her role in this movie is less showy than that of Gosling’s Dean, Williams pulls in a splendid performance as a quiet wife and mom who struggles through all the various forces that are tugging at her from different directions. Williams’ performance is a quiet one, but when she turns it on during the film’s confrontational moments, she really turns up the heat. Cindy is submissive to a certain degree to Dean’s imposing and humorous charm, but she ultimately reaches a breaking point in the end and at that point we see her finally try and reclaim her life back.

Both actors are sure to earn Academy Award nominations (as I write this, the award nominations are about 48 hours away), which they clearly deserve. Unfortunately, however, the since, intelligent performances given by the actors is short-shrifted by the less-than-satisfying direction by Derek Cianfrance. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing a film with great acting that gets squandered away by a lackluster film that falls just short of its promise. I felt that the director gave way too much of his film to the actors so that in the end I was watching nothing more than an actor’s workshop where two very good actors improvise for 2 hours in front of a involuntary audience. I appreciate very much the dedication that went into providing all the various details of the different stages in the couple’s relationship and marriage. However, the pacing is so nonexistent that as much as I loved watching Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, I became tired and unsatisfied of the movie. For all of the genuine moments of sadness and raw pain that you see onscreen, the director fails to craft the flow that’s necessary to make the audience want to take this journey with him.

Its difficult to pinpoint exactly what I found wrong with BLUE VALENTINE, but one thing I found to be tiring and something I have unfortunately have had to witness in too many recent films is the narrative device of shuttling back and forth in time. BLUE VALENTINE shows our characters at the beginning of their relationship and towards the end of their broken marriage. I didn’t feel confused as to whether we were in the past or future, but what annoyed me about the use of this device was how jolting it is for the audience to break the flow of the story in this manner. What’s more, you obviously understand going into this movie that we’re going to see a marriage ultimately end. Because you know this, however, you’re ready to finally see it end long before the film actually ends. There isn’t enough for the mind and eye to feed on before the end in order to keep the audience’s attention to the end. There are some great dramatic moments in the movie, but I wanted to see more of that.

Ultimately, BLUE VALENTINE comes up short as something for you to want to go out and pay money to see. It suffers from the same problems I had with RABBIT HOLE, but at least here we get finer performances from the lead actors and more dramatic moments to keep me from slashing the screen in half. However, even that wasn’t enough for me in the end to make me embrace this film like the way I did with IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES.

 

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