A great concept. Two excellent performances. Outstanding, even clever editing. A movie that could have taken its place with selected works by Robert Altman, Igmar Bergman, and John Cassevetes. But Blue Valentine fails spectacularly due to a weak plot, a weak character, and what appears to be artistic indecision. Simply put, Blue Valentine doesn't seem to know if it wants to be a European film, or an American film. Furthermore, it doesn't seem to want the audience to get attached to the characters, or have feelings about their relationship.
The fact that I have much to say about Blue Valentine is a testament to how many good elements are in the film. As I will explain, the editing is first rate. The acting is world class. Ryan Gosling, in particular, almost makes us love him with his charm and his old school, hipster, 20th century values.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway is what I told my partner as we walked out of AMC Empire 25. I said the movie shows Americans for what they really are: depressed, bummed out people. I know Americans have a reputation for being eternally positive and giddy. Americans love candy. Americans love amusements. Americans and Japanese play more video games and consume more movies that any other people. And back in the 90s, I was once told that Americans are easy to spot in Europe (especially northern Europe). They are the poorly dressed people who are always smiling. But Blue Valentine gives us a far more realistic view of typical American adults: most of them are unable or don't know how to enjoy life.
If Blue Valentine were a commentary on just how depressed Americans are today, then perhaps it would be a great movie. But the film does not make that argument. The film fails to achieve its goal, which was to make the audience like both the relationship being portrayed, and the partners in that relationship. This was supposed to be the story of boy pursues girl, boy and girl fall in love, and then, after a series of sad turning points, boy and girl fall out of love and split. Instead, this movie handicaps itself by having the girl never fall in love with the boy. How the hell is the audience supposed to get behind that?
Seriously, this was supposed to be a hankie movie? The audience was supposed to be saddened by the relationship's disintegration? Allow me to spoil the whole thing and count the ways this movie betrays the audience and gives them something that falls far short of the buzz and expectations that were set when the movie premiered at Sundance nearly one year ago.
*** Spoliers below! But you shouldn't mind in this case. You'd know what this movie is about if you read a single review. ***
1. Dean (wonderfully played by Ryan Gosling) is a really nice working class stiff. Despite being shown the awful man he has become early in the film, we go back about five years to learn that when he was in his mid 20s, he was pretty darn cool. We see him join a moving company, and help an elderly man, Walter, move to a nursing home somewhere near the Poconos. Rather than simply dump Walter's boxes and drive off, Dean takes an extra hour to unpack and decorate Walter's room. It is the greatest part of the movie. Dean is creative, funny, and an all around good guy. His future wife, Cindy (the perpetually sad looking but underrated Michelle Williams), is also at the nursing home. In an edit that should inspire every film student alive, we see them make eye contact for the first time, and Dean begins his pursuit of Cindy. So to recap: Dean, a boy living in New York, decides to pursue Cindy, a college girl in rual Pennsylvania. And Cindy never sees the great thing that Dean did for Walter.
2. While Dean is chasing his seemingly impossible dream, we follow Cindy, and learn that while she was attending college in eastern Pennsylvania, she had a rash, aggressive, jock boyfriend, Bobby (Mike Vogel). An afternoon quickie in a dorm room leads to an unplanned pregnancy for Cindy. But by the time she learns that she is pregnant, she has already dumped Bobby (angered by the unprotected sex, it seems), and has opened up to Dean. The center of the film is the most charming. In a true cinéma vérité moment, shot with a handheld HD camera, through unclean panes of glass, we see Dean serenade Cindy with a 4-string ukulele and a song that Ryan Gosling wrote for the movie. Awesome, right? This movie is so wonderfully edited that the center of the movie is the warmest, most realistic moment between these two characters. The audience is going to fall in love with them, right?
3. Wrong. Cindy has no plans to tell Dean that she is pregnant. She prefers to wait for him to discover it. But in another awesome moment, Dean forces Cindy to reveal her condition while walking on the Manhattan Bridge. Cindy considers aborting her fetus, which was fathered by the violent asshole Bobby. She decides to get a D&C at a small town clinic. She goes so far as to be in the procedure room, legs spread, with a speculum up to her cervix, and a creepy looking male doctor injecting her with anesthetic (without a needle extender, I might add...talk about intimate service). However, Cindy lets the discomfort get the better of her, and she asks the doctor to stop the procedure. In an unrealistic motion, Cindy jumps up (isn't there a speculum in her?) and runs out to the waiting room for Dean to take her back to her dorm. On the bleak bus ride back to campus, Dean professes his love for Cindy. The feeling is never reciprocated.
4. Well, the rest, as they say, is history. Cindy decides to marry Dean, under the false pretence that marriage will bring stability and happiness in her life. Wrong. Dean shows incredible maturity, as he raises Cindy's daughter to become a beautiful little girl with promise. But Cindy's marriage and having a child at such a young age destroys her dream to become a doctor. She instead works at a rural Pennsylvania hospital as either a nurse or physician assistant (a PA in PA, I like to think). She grows to resent Dean for his carefree attitude, his untapped creativity, and his brief run as the better, more attentive parent. But a lack of love from Cindy drives Dean down a self destructive path to alcoholism. Dean transforms from the cool kid in Brooklyn to an asshole in aviators.
A Villiage Voice critic read the film as misogynist, arguing that the film portrays Cindy as the cause of Dean's negative transformation. But my read of the movie is that Cindy was unfortunately her own worst enemy. She shouldn't have kept the pregnancy (although the film wisely respects her choice). She shouldn't have married Dean. She should have been more honest with herself and acknowledged that she was never in love with Dean. I never blame the victim, but if Cindy had been more in touch with what she really wanted, this tragedy would not have happened. If Cindy had put herself first, there would be no movie.
Which brings us back to how this story is common in the real world. Too many men and women marry for the wrong reasons. Too many people don't prepare themselves for aging. Too many people simply stop living (or never start). Were we supposed to root for this doomed marriage to continue? We were presented with a 30 year old couple already living like depressed 50 year olds. How common is this couple in the real world? Far too common, I'm afraid.
The United States has this old reputation of being the optimistic, hopeful nation. We saved the world from fascism and imperial aggression in 1945. Heck, we saved South Korea from a communist takeover in 1953. We won the space race, as if that counts for anything. We built the Internet, and that does count. Our standard of living rose steadily between 1946 and 1973. And then it slowly went to hell.
But we clung to our glorious past in the years following 1973. We still had a healthy club culture in the 1970s, cocaine and all. We had a much needed, at times fun, sexual revolution. We had a long overdue political and economic empowerment of women. In pop culture, we had a fun 1950s revival in the 1970s, and a 1960s Motown revival in the 1980s. Movies by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas provided us with the guilty pleasures of the 30s, 40s and 50s in contemporary blockbuster packaging. And we even elected a president who tried hard to stay young, wore stylish chocolate brown suits, and offered jellybeans to visitors - all while denying or exacerbating the economic and international crises of the time (which continue today, of course).
We've gone from jellybeans to Xanax. I can point to Blue Valentine as evidence of our nation's current psyche, but I cannot recommend it as a great film because it fails to get the audience on Dean and Cindy's side. Rooting for Dean and Cindy is frankly a waste of time.
So if you want a similarly shot film that will make you love the protagonists, go back to 2007s Once. Or if you want to see a better disintegration of a marriage, then why not watch Igmar Bergman's miniseries Scenes From A Marriage (1973) or several Woody Allen movies, a couple of Robert Altman films, or several John Cassevettes films, including Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), or Opening Night (1977).