starring Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Stacy Keach
written and directed by John Sayles
starring Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams
screenplay by Ira Sachs & Oren Moverman, based on the novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven by John Bingham
directed by Ira Sachs
by Walter Chaw As a huge admirer of John Sayles's middle-period body of work--a period marked by such pictures as Matewan, Eight Men Out, and Lone Star (still my pick for the best American film of the Nineties)--it pains me to look at something like Honeydripper and recognize in it everything I like about Sayles side-by-side with everything that's fast making him irrelevant. He's got a common touch, no question, something forged in the time he spent rolling up his sleeves, joining labour unions, hitchhiking across the country, and writing vital, committed novels about it all. Was a time his gift for how ordinary people talked and thought translated into definitive statements about the United States; now it seems that all he uses it for is passing, fleeting music in otherwise earthbound productions. Passion Fish is extraordinary in its effortlessness; Honeydripper is likewise effortless, but it lacks brio, and, more so than any of Sayles's films before it, it doesn't have one single reason for existing. Even flat, incontestable disasters like Silver City had going for it that Sayles-ian liberal dementia, and it boasted a performance in which long-time collaborator Chris Cooper hilariously channelled George W.'s reptilian, dangerous/dull political vacuum. Hold up Honeydripper to the least of Sayles's pictures and discover that what he's learned about craft remains while that indigent fire has apparently guttered to wax and ash. Pointedly, at a period in our country where it seems that some of the activism Sayles has spent much of his art trying to drum up has finally begun to manifest itself in voter-turnout among the young, Sayles has produced his most flaccid, middling film. Maybe this is the contented corncob pipe after a hard day in the fields.
Piano-man Purvis (Danny Glover) owns the titular dive in the middle of an autumnal, eternal nowhere South filthy with Robert Johnsons and their attendant crossroads. He's going under with only his best friend Maceo (Charles S. Dutton) and sickly daughter China Doll (one of many black villainesses favoured on Tyra Banks's curiously self-hating "America's Next Top Model", Yaya DaCosta) to bear witness, leading him to make one last stab at saving the joint with an appearance by some phantom guitarist whom no one appears to know by face. That's convenient, because in blows tall, handsome stranger Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) on a boxcar one day, only to be instantly arrested and put on cotton-picking work detail by the evil pig-knuckle, Pusser-manqué Sheriff (Stacy Keach). With all his bills come due, Purvis finds himself wheeling and dealing in as laconic a way as you can possibly imagine to ensure he has liquor to peddle and a good woman in the kitchen frying up the chicken. Even the music sucks: it's not the blues but that new-fangled rock-and-roll that really drives 'em wild at the Honeydripper--something that touches base with Sayles's interest in the tides of time, although nothing that approaches the auteur's past exhumations of archaeological sites rich with the strata of Americana. His best films seem to begin with someone digging something up; this one begins with two kids noodling around with homemade instruments on their front porch. Idle hands the work of the devil, though I'd only go so far as to say that Honeydripper is inert. We should be so lucky that the devil were anywhere near it.
Ira Sachs borrows Chris Cooper for his Married Life and begins to establish himself as the next American filmmaker with maybe something to say about the middle class. Cooper is married mensch Harry, bound in matrimonial shackles to sexy Pat (Patricia Clarkson), who professes that she's only be able to express love physically. It's the first of a few things in curious tension in the picture as Sachs plays relentlessly, in voiceover and matching shots, with the idea that things are not only not always what they seem, but never what they seem. The trick is that these little deceptions that comprise our lives aren't executed with malice but exist independent of intention. Pat believes what she says, and then for the rest of the time we're with her, we realize that she's wrong about what motivates herself, her husband, her husband's lover (Rachel McAdams), and her husband's best friend (Pierce Brosnan). Everyone's wrong. All the time. And as the film wraps up in exactly the last place it ought to end up, we realize that we're just as stupid-happy as the rest of the clams.
As a follow-up to his sublime Forty Shades of Blue, Married Life couldn't be more different in form (it looks a lot like Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven), yet it feels very similar in function. Both are diaries of the disintegration of illusion, the difference being that Married Life's nihilism is presented as a sly, pitch-black domestic manifesto that's scabrous enough to suggest that if you design your own cage, you'll forget that you're trapped. Cooper and Clarkson are remarkable, it goes without saying, and McAdams is fine, if still having to work off The Family Stone--but the revelation is Brosnan, who reveals himself in this character of a philandering, tortured, uncertain playboy to be an actor of substance and, more gratifyingly, sensitivity. Melodrama done right, see Married Life just for a discovery scene that plays out entirely in Cooper's red-rimmed eyes. What it lacks is the surprise of Forty Shades of Blue--it's Sachs's burden that each of his films, from now on, will bear the weight, at least for me, of heightened expectation. Originally published: March 7, 2008.