Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Review: "Blue Valentine"
A man and a woman stand in a closed storefront. He strums a ukulele and sings in a funny warble, while she dances a high-stepping jig in incongruous accompaniment. They are young, and they are falling in love.
This moment of pure cinematic magic would mark the high point of your average romantic comedy. But in writer/director Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" it is the crystallization of a heartrending certainty: This is the happiest they will ever be.
Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling star in the most authentic portrayal of romance we've seen in a long time: Its hopeful, giddy beginning and its stagnant, fracturing end.
The story jumps back and forth from the first meeting of Cindy and Dean to the dissolution of their marriage a few years later. The most amazing thing is that if we look closely enough, we can already see the seeds of destruction planted and beginning to take root.
Dean is a fatalist who commits to an idea totally, if not permanently. A high-school dropout who totes boxes for a moving company, he takes one look at college student Cindy and is hooked. He tells his buddies about love at first sight, and when he spies her on a bus Dean moves in with relentless if affectionate determination.
Cindy is ambitious, maybe even wants to be a doctor, and is put off by Dean's contentment at working a menial job. In a frank conversation between their older selves, he's frustrated by her questions about his lack of drive. Work is something I only do so I can get back to you and our daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka), he replies.
Having seen firsthand how love can drain out of a relationship -- her father barely speaks to her mother, other than to complain about her cooking -- Cindy worries it'll happen to her, too.
"How can you trust your feelings if it can just disappear like that?" she asks her grandmother.
The modern part of the story is rife with recrimination and regret. Cindy carelessly leaves the gate open so the family dog gets out and is run over. Dean, who adores and is adored by Frankie, tells her the dog has gone to Hollywood to star in movies.
Dean comes up with the lame idea of going to a low-rent sex hotel with themed rooms: We'll get drunk and make love, he says, as if that will fill the canyon between them. Given the choice between the Future Room or Cupid's Cove, Dean chooses the science fiction-themed one.
That sums up their relationship right there: Dean wants a future together, and Cindy clearly does not. She hasn't told him only because she hasn't really told herself, either.
The performances by Gosling and Williams are tender, real and nuanced. Their conversations, so easy and engaging when they're younger, turn into low-grade fencing matches.
Cianfrance, who wrote the screenplay with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne, makes the bold choice of not picking either Dean or Cindy as the bad guy. Both have faults that contributed to their failed relationship, and have acted in ways that are selfish or childish.
Dean's anger is the easiest to understand: He treats his wife and daughter well, and doesn't comprehend why his affection is not returned. Cindy is the realist who realizes you can't create passion, or recapture it once it's fled.
"Blue Valentine" is an exquisitely well-acted drama that gets both the joy and the ache of love just right.
3.5 stars out of four