Breaking up is hard to watch
"Blue Valentine’’ is a time-bomb marriage movie. You know from the third scene. Cindy (Michelle Williams) is getting herself ready for work and her daughter, Frankie, who’s 3 or 4, ready for school. Her husband, Dean (Ryan Gosling), insults the instant oatmeal she’s made. Then, along with Frankie, he proceeds to pick out the raisins and slurp them off the table.
In another movie, something with Adam Sandler or a Wilson brother, maybe, Cindy might find this charming. But “Blue Valentine’’ aspires to high solemnity. Cindy is close to being through. She wanted a man. She married an aardvark. How long until she leaves? And as the film, which Derek Cianfrance directed and co-wrote, makes its way to the end of its second hour, it becomes an acutely stylized, slow-motion marital accident. You either want to call AAA or roll your eyes.
That largely depends on whether you believe the filmmakers know what they’re up to. Cianfrance has a capacious, hungry eye. The camera treats every possible shot as a wide canvas. Most of the film is set in parts of Queens, Brooklyn, and small-town Pennsylvania, where Cindy works as a nurse and Dean does a little of this and a little of that; right now it’s house painting. The visual high point is a motel suite tinted in a lunar blue and done up as a space station. In one of the movie’s many cumbersome approaches to irony, it’s called “the future room.’’
Cianfrance (it’s pronounced “SEE-in-france “) shoots in a realist style, meaning the camera spends a lot of time waiting for Williams and Gosling to behave until the negative chafing produces a fire. The problem is that there isn’t enough material to do them many favors, which is odd since three people, including the director, are credited with writing the script. The story of this relationship alternates in time between bristling courtship and weary demise. We see the couple come together and watch them fall apart. The collapse is part of an exercise whose spiritual instructor is John Cassavetes. Gosling makes Dean a casual alcoholic. Young adulthood turns Cindy humorless. As a couple, they stammer and shout and push into each other, just as Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands did for Cassavetes, and Albert Finney and Diane Keaton did, with ferocity, in Alan Parker’s “Shoot the Moon.’’
The relationship here doesn’t ever seem real. Williams appears too together to find herself married to such a mess of a man. Gosling’s screw-up is a cute, weird, troubled guy. You date him for a year then throw him back in. Guilt and desperation are what bind these two, and the movie knows that that’s a shoddy recipe for love. In giving us the beginning and the end, the film omits the crucial middle. Cindy’s face has gone hard, and Dean’s hairline has ebbed. And we can speculate that these years were just as full of raisins being slurped from the table. But speculation does not an argument make. Dean and Cindy have lasted this long because his one heroic act makes her feel like she has to stay. Women make this mistake in life, but life is what this movie lacks. “Blue Valentine’’ feels young (Cianfrance is only 35) but has none of the ideas or risks of youth. It wants an old soul without spending much time in church.
All the movie’s good style goes to waste on a not terribly compelling conceit and loosely sketched characters. Some of the acting feels improvised. But given the number of scenes that culminate in obscenities and the volleyed repetition of lines (Williams says something; Gosling says it back as a question), the limits of improvisation are reached early and often. Otherwise, the spontaneity feels whittled away by too many workshops.
Williams, who’s a marvelous interior performer, has a few startlingly true moments here, like when Cindy furtively wipes her mouth in the motel shower after Dean kisses her. But she doesn’t appear as comfortable with the realism assignment as she has in, say, Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy.’’ Sharp or singeing might be Williams’s best mode. Her work as a smoldering apparition in “Shutter Island’’ stuck with me more than what she’s done here. What I remember most about “Blue Valentine’’ is the back of her head.
Gosling steps right into the Cassavetes idea. He can be bluesy. But here that crypto-Queens drawl, the Methody deliberateness, the all-purpose angst, trendy accoutrements of handsomeness (mustache, biceps, expensive-looking shades) can also suggest membership in an all-barista Marlon Brando tribute band. There’s something of that in this performance — hipsterism misdirected. Cianfrance is so helpless to stop his star he could be the drummer. At some point, Dean begs Cindy for guidance: “Tell me what to do.’’ Please, sir, take off your sunglasses.