Wednesday, May 16, 2012

DVD Movie Review: "Blue Valentine" (2010)

Heartbreak Hotel.

In this unflinching, often painful, frequently grimy study of a once-hopeful love now gone off the rails, Michelle Williams turns in a performance that won her an Oscar nomination, but it's Ryan Gosling who will ultimately break your heart.

Let me start out with a disclaimer by telling you what this indie movie isn't.  This is not a feel-good movie.  This is not a date movie.  This is not an entertaining movie.  This is not a movie for the faint-hearted.  

It's an imperfect but still searingly gut-wrenching character study that can be very hard to watch in some places.  It's an often deeply distressing look at human failure in relationships.  I am also tempted to say that it should be required viewing as a counterpoint to the endless numbers of sappy, unrealistic rom-coms and Nicholas Sparksian emotional enormities.

Blue Valentine is really a movie with a double storyline that unfolds as the movie shifts between past and present.  One is the tale of how working-class Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) first meet and form their romance as hopeful young people; the other takes place some seven years later as the daily grind of married life, family obligations, work responsibilities, and personal issues begin to take their mundane but nonetheless terrible toll.  (Spoiler-filled more detailed thoughts after the note about rating.)

In the beginning.

Mad Minerva gives this film a grade of B+.

Rotten Tomatoes gives Blue Valentine the fresh rating of 88%.

Blue Valentine runs 112 minutes and is rated R for language, some violence, and various sexual situations.  You'll recall there was a kerfuffle when the MPAA initially slapped this movie with an NC-17 rating that was then contested and finally rescinded.  I personally didn't think there was anything in here that went beyond an R.  The real violence and nakedness in this piece is emotional, not physical.  Anyway, that MPAA.  I had offhandedly decided not to see this flick in the theater when I heard about the NC-17 business, but when I finally saw the DVD on a whim ("let's give it a chance - besides, Ryan Gosling"), the silliness of that first MPAA rating was pretty clear.  But so was the realization of the potential damage done by that whole mess.  That rating does stigmatize the movie that gets it - even if only temporarily.

SPOILERS AHEAD in concluding thoughts:

Let's talk about goals and aspirations.  One of the things that really struck me about the crack-up of the relationship is the element of dissatisfaction that Cindy possessed about Dean's work life.  He's a house painter, and he's content with it.  She's not. In one revealing scene, she badgers him about not doing something else with his artistic/musical side.  He's not at all bothered by not doing anything and doesn't understand why this sort of hypothetical could be a matter of debate.  His own lack of ambition doesn't bother him.  In fact, he explicitly states elsewhere that he already has what he wants in life: he wants only to be a husband and a father, and he's content with being in those roles to Cindy and little Frankie (whom he adores and who clearly adores him).  Cindy has her own issues; once hoping to go to medical school, she's now a nurse, and you get the distinct sense that she's bothered by this.  Maybe it's about class, at least in part.

Anyway, I'm not sure quite what I'm getting at, but I was finding it really hard to watch this. I was finding Dean's simple desire to be in a family to be moving on a very fundamental level and his attachment to Frankie to be the most touching thing of all.  In the end, Dean's ultimate flaw might be his clumsy cluelessness about Cindy's dissatisfaction with their life, but he's not a bad guy at heart.  The flashback sequences, if anything, are heartbreaking in their depiction of his devotion to her.  I couldn't figure out just what it was that Cindy wanted in the end - only that whatever it was, it wasn't Dean.  Michelle Williams does a fine job of inhabiting the character of the frustrated, often sullen Cindy, but there is something haunting about Gosling's Dean and his ultimate despair in the final scene.  What can you possibly say to a man whose universe has just collapsed around him, when his plea to make amends is rejected once and for all?

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