Brosnan, as the film's narrator/manipulator Richard Langley, continues in the blase voice of a hopeless cynic, admitting he's a womanizer, creating a metaphor explaining how marriage is an illness he hasn't caught yet. And the story proceeds for 90 minutes from his perspective, for better or worse -- "blase" being the key word. This man stays at an even keel in the face of dramatic events that would raise the temperature in any room. Instead, he struggles to raise an eyebrow.
It is 1949. Richard is best friends with Harry (Chris Cooper), who is married to Pat (Patricia Clarkson). A boring, wealthy 50-something businessman on the outside and a hopeless romantic on the inside, Harry confides in Richard: He's leaving Pat for Kay (Rachel McAdams), a sweet 30ish war widow with -- well, with indistinct character traits. We learn she sells wallpaper, and she likes to read. And of course, like all lonely women, she has a cat. Hooray.
Harry encourages Richard to visit Kay and assuage her loneliness, prompting our philandering protagonist to do what he can to create a love triangle. Meanwhile, when Harry even insinuates to Pat that he might be leaving her, she collapses into hysterics, which an unwitting doctor says might be the result of an "emotional condition." (Is that a technical term?) Being the sensitive type, Harry can't go through with a divorce, so he decides to poison his wife.
Richard floats through "Married Life" eliciting the emotional debris of all the other characters' psyches, soaking it up like a sponge. A very smarmy sponge. This makes him hard to sympathize with, something he has in common with Harry and Jan, who, Richard learns, also is cheating. Which leaves us with only one generally redeeming character: Kay, with her books and wallpaper and feline companion.
OK -- maybe I'm being unfair. Writer/director Ira Sachs' intention is to create an atmosphere of post-war upper-middle-class propriety and decorum, and undercut it with the subversive, mystifying nature of the human mind.
There's some truth to be extracted here, but the characters are thinly written -- a bunch of quietly miserable sots, they are -- walking through the admirably lush, detailed sets.
Sachs utilizes some elements of dark comedy here, and the high-caliber cast does a reasonably good job of selling it, but the screenplay never seems to find solid footing. "Married Life" maintains a kind of ambulatory tempo that never really engages us in these peoples' lives, or lets us inside their heads. Not that we need a blatant explanation for the sallow-voiced Richard's selfish motivations, but they're so subtle, they may not exist in this movie.