Thursday, February 3, 2011

'Blue Valentine': a review

I was talking recently with a friend about how the Oscars should have a category for best trailer. There would be two categories: best trailer overall, and trailer that was most effective at making a stinker movie look good.

The idea came about because I've been watching and re-watching the Blue Valentine trailer in anticipation of its release at the State Theater. The trailer promised all the elements of a movie I would love: disappointment, a bittersweet song, tears, Michelle Williams tap dancing, a doomed love story, sad white people. And while the film, which I saw Sunday night, cannot be called a stinker, the trailer oversold it.

Some moments in Blue Valentine were so sincere that they took my breath away. More often because I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach, but sometimes because they were so sweet.

(Spoiler alert, as they say.)

For instance, the six-year-old daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) hangs off her father Dean's (Ryan Gosling) hip with the comfort that made me nostalgic for the days when I would lie on my dad's chest and watch Star Wars. There's a shot of Dean carrying Frankie while they're looking for their lost dog: simultaneously, they look left, she swings herself around and they look right, two heads of the same body. Because of the portrayal of this relationship, the audience believes that Dean wants from life, more than anything, a family.

Cindy (Michelle Williams) is a little more complicated. She is as a nurse with a promotion in the works, but we learn that she had aspirations to attend medical school when she was in college. Frazzled and rushed in the morning, she prepares oatmeal for Frankie, only to be undermined by Dean, who says she hasn't let it soak long enough. But she remains pleasant, cheerful, loving toward her daughter, if not her husband.

What I wanted from the movie was some insight into the mysterious atrophy of love. (That's all.) What makes a seemingly happy and healthy relationship crumble into bewildered questions and accusations and criticism over the way one has prepared their daughter's breakfast?

But Blue Valentine does not have the capacity to tackle this issue, mostly because Dean and Cindy's relationship was not particularly happy or healthy in the beginning. After a month or so of dating, they marry when Cindy learns she is pregnant by another man, a fellow student at her college. Based on statistics alone, the writing is on the wall for an unsuccessful marriage.

The movie never recovers from this initial handicap; with the foundation of a thoughtless and immature relationship, how could the audience be surprised when the whole thing blows up in their faces? Instead of grappling with the unwieldiness of love, the film is distracted by the story of a girl who got married because she was afraid and a boy who got married because all he wanted was a family, any family. More a cautionary tale about rushing into marriage and babies making babies than a meditation on modern relationships, as I'd hoped.

The director doesn't really show us why these two are in love in the first place, perhaps because he can't. How do we explain matters of the heart? But the director doesn't tell us what happened in between courtship and divorce because he thinks he doesn't need to.

And that, I think, is the crux of the problem with this movie. How does a man go from serenading his date with a ukulele in the street to needing a beer with breakfast? How does a woman go from shyly telling her boyfriend about excelling in biology to locking a metallic bathroom door on him in a chintzy motel? Statistical obstacles notwithstanding, that's still the story here. What happened to these people? How does love betray itself like that?

As it is, I have to be satisfied with the musical explanation offered, of course, in the trailer:


  1. I'm going to see it on Saturday (after having to bail on Erika the first time) - will report back.

  2. Good review! I’m curious what you think the movie was trying to do. Obviously, there is a difference between what you wanted from it (‘insight into the mysterious atrophy of love’, ‘What makes a seemingly happy and healthy relationship crumble into bewildered questions and accusations and criticism over the way one has prepared their daughter's breakfast?’) and what the writer/director was aiming for.

    I don’t think the film aspired to give insight into the ‘mysterious atrophy of love’; I think that is its assumption. Given the non-linear narrative structure and the huge amount of background the writer/director shows us in effort to make the characters’ motivations transparent, I think the writer/director wants us to celebrate the heroic failure of what was doomed from the start. That is, the audience is asked to overlook all the red flags and ‘statistical obstacles’ and celebrate Michelle and Ryan—I mean, Cindy and Dean. How else do we account for—literally—the fireworks during the credit roll?

    There is absolutely no mystery about these two. We know exactly what drove them to be in love and exactly why they fall out of love; in fact, it is the same thing in each case. For this reason, I find the movie cynical, which is why I couldn’t figure out the celebratory tone at the end. For all their differences, which don’t amount to much, Cindy and Dean have one thing in common that sustains them both—faith in capital ‘L’ love. But it is clear that this impossible idea of love is fueled and reinforced by their mutual, albeit distinct, suffering. In this sense, we wonder why we are celebrating love at all.