[Screen It]

(2010) (Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams) (R)

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Drama: A couple's marriage continues to erode, all while happier times are seen from their past.
Dean (RYAN GOSLING) and Cindy (MICHELLE WILLIAMS) were once madly in love, but now their marriage is on the rocks. She once aspired to be a doctor, but an unexpected pregnancy back in college -- courtesy of classmate Bobby (MIKE VOGEL) -- derailed those plans, what with the arrival of daughter Frankie (FAITH WLADYKA) and marriage to Dean who worked as a mover for a moving company at the time.

Cindy now works in a doctor's office while Dean drinks in order to cope with his job. Still, he's a good dad to Frankie, but his behavior and never amounting to anything in his life means the past spark between them is now gone. Of course, with his mom out of the picture when he was ten and her dad, Jerry (JOHN DOMAN), treating her mom badly left them with no good role models for how to make a relationship work.

As theirs continues to erode, Dean tries to rekindle that spark with a stay at a cheesy romantically themed hotel, but it might be too late. As their woes mount, however, we also see flashbacks to their happier times together along with pivotal moments that would eventually lead them to their current state.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Back in 2009, the delightful and insightful romantic comedy "500 Days of Summer" was released. By repeatedly jumping back and forth through the titular period, it showed the evolution of a romantic relationship, with all of its accompanying ups and downs, highs and lows, and joys and disappointments. At its core and despite not involving a married couple, it examined the pitfalls of blind initial love eventually segueing into cold, hard reality. Considering that the majority of relationships in the U.S. don't work out (regardless of whether they involve married or just dating couples), it was a timely but thankfully entertaining flick.

Following in its path but unlikely to be described by anyone as enjoyable, "Blue Valentine" is the latest film to put the topic of failing marriages under the microscope. Like its immediate predecessor, it also jumps back and forth through time, starting with the relationship between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) already mortally wounded but dragging along. While there are still some traces of love left, they're really just going through the motions, somewhat due to having a young daughter (Faith Wladyka), but also because it's routine for them. Yet, the tensions, resentment and more easily boil to the surface, further damaging their union with each occurrence.

It's not exactly pleasant material, and had the story simply unfolded from this point and moved only forward, there wouldn't be much going for the offering, save for the terrific performances from the leads. Wisely, writer/director Derek Cianfrance and co-screenwriters Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne opted to take the "500 Days" approach, albeit from only a dramatic perspective, and thus suddenly spring the past onto the unsuspecting viewer.

The first such scene features Williams suddenly in a wheelchair, watching a wrestler who had only moments earlier asked her character if she was faithful to her husband. Watching this off a DVD screener, I knew the reels couldn't have been out of order (which would seem to make the most sense at the time) and then realized the temporal jump had taken place back (and that the wheelchair ride was just that).

The scene is also fitting in that it features Cindy back when her future seemed bright and her upcoming career as a doctor was in sight. But a sexual encounter with the wrestler quickly undermined that, what with the ensuing unexpected pregnancy, last-minute decision not to have an abortion, and then marrying Gosling's charming but questionable father/husband figure character.

All of those developments and more don't immediately surface, as the filmmakers keep the storyline jumping back and forth between that and Dean trying to rekindle any last ounce of love by booking them into a cheesy, romantically themed motel. As a result, we witness the good with the bad, making the overall offering a bittersweet experience as we see what was and could have been erode into an all too familiar occurrence.

While a certain sex scene is what's drawn the film its greatest amount of attention (for the MPAA initially assigning an NC-17 rating for that and then changing their mind after criticism from various circles lead them to amend that rating to an R) it's the performances and not the Tarantino-lite time shenanigans that generate the film's heart, soul and poignancy.

Williams nails the part of a bitter woman whose dreams set sail long ago without her, and who blames or at least takes out her frustrations on her husband. It's not a pretty thing to watch, but the performance is devastating, especially as contrasted with her character's more hopeful, carefree and hopelessly in love moments from the past.

As good as she is, Gosling equally matches and perhaps exceeds her performance as a husband who's watched but also contributed to the demise of their relationship. Although not abusive, he's the kind of guy who never amounted to anything and initially survived and succeeded via his roguish charm. With the adding of age and the passage of time, however, that sheen has worn thin and he no longer makes his wife's ticker do any sort of flip-flops.

As with Williams, the scenes of him in his happier days only add to the heartbreak of what's happened since. In fact, the best moments of that occur during the beginning of the end credits, when everything is literally and metaphorically over, as fireworks explode and briefly illuminate images of the couple in their better and more hopeful days.

"Blue Valentine" is one of those films you admire as it unfolds, but will likely never watch again due to its overall sad/downer aura and the fact that it will likely remind many a viewer of their own and possibly similar relationship experiences. It rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed January 3, 2010 / Posted January 7, 2010

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