January 25, 2020

Blue Valentine (2010)
Grade: 80/100

Director: Derek Clanfrance
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka

What it's about. The relationship between a young couple is presented at its happy beginning, and depressing end. Flashbacks are frequent, and are almost always more positive than the couple's increasingly troubled present. Ryan Gosling plays the husband who means well but can't get his act together, and Michelle Williams plays his more responsible, and increasing trapped, wife. They have an adorable daughter, Faith Wladyka, who is about five years old.

In supporting roles, John Doman plays Williams' gentle and aging father, and Mike Vogel is a doctor who employs Williams as a nurse, with the goal of someday seducing her.

How others will see it. Blue Valentine did not make a killing at the box office, but it was nonetheless profitable because the budget was only a million dollars. The film was acclaimed by critics, and garnered many honors on the festival circuit. Most significant among these were Best Actor at the Golden Globes, and Best Actress at both the Oscars and Golden Globes.

At imdb.com, the film has 175K user votes, a big total for what is essentially an experimental film. The user ratings drop with advancing age, from 7.8 under 18 to 7.0 over 45, which demonstrates that a film intended to be revelatory instead of crowd-pleasing can nonetheless sometimes achieve the latter anyway.

The user reviews are generally laudatory. "Surprisingly well done", "genuine and heartfelt", "emotionally devastating." It's not the date movie that some would rather it be, but it tells the truth that your special other isn't that special after all.

Of course, there are people who hate it. "Don't watch it unless you are suicidal", "Couldn't be more boring", "most depressing film I've ever seen", "worthless", "unbearable", and so forth. Those who prefer Hallmark cable channel movies need not apply.

How I felt about it. Ryan Gosling's star turn in The Notebook (2004) demonstrated he could sell tickets playing the hopelessly romantic man who will pursue you endlessly, until the end of time. It's like The Terminator, except that he wants to marry you instead of kill you.

The Notebook depicted such a romance with nary a shred of reality, because the producers knew that a big audience existed for romantic happy endings. Certainly, such an audience is much larger than those who would spend money to watch a movie where Gosling stalks his own wife and makes such an ass of himself that she has to move in with Dad to finally drive him away.

What happens when you marry a man who is uneducated, unemployed, irresponsible, immature, and addicted to both cigarettes and alcohol? This is not The Notebook. Of course it all goes wrong, because there was virtually no other path. Romance cannot overcome reality.

True, we have been told in movies too many times that men are unreliable jerks, while women have hearts of gold. But as we all know, some guys really are jerks, some women do have hearts of gold, and one all too often marries the other. If I can't get rid of him, I'll just marry him. What makes Blue Valentine remarkable is that it is unflinching in its depiction of the well-intentioned jerk who can't ever see how wrong he is for his wife, and never stops trying to fix what he is incapable of repairing in their marriage.

Admittedly, the filmmakers did not have to turn Williams' doctor boss into just another man who wants to take advantage of his position to begin an affair with his married employee. But perhaps more men are like that than we would like to believe. And at least Williams' dad is a reasonable fellow.

There was a lot of ad libs between Gosling and Williams. Improvisation doesn't always work, especially when the characters' motivations aren't clear or credible, or when the actors struggle to find appropriate words to say. But improv can work when the actors are up to the challenge, and the director shares a clear and reasonable vision for who the characters are, and where their fictional lives are headed. Sometimes, as in the case of Blue Valentine, that takes the characters where the audience doesn't want them to go.