Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out what sorts of movies Academy members are watching in the Future Room. This week they become very blue watching Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine.
Ben, I’ve been struggling for roughly 48 hours over whether or not I should say this out loud, whether or not I’ll calm down with the passage of time. But in the days since we saw Blue Valentine my enthusiasm hasn’t waned: Ben, I’m as riveted watching Ryan Gosling act as I am watching Brando in movies from the 50s! I’m not kidding you, man! If you had asked me last week to make a list of the best acted American movies of all time, it would have been a bunch of Elia Kazan films; if you asked me today, Blue Valentine might have knocked Baby Doll off the list. For real!
So, the disappointment—and there’s always a “but” during Prestige Pic season, ain’t there?—is that he and Michelle Williams are so darn good in a movie that’s not nearly at their level. To refresh yer memory, Benjamin (just kidding, it’s for you, readers): Gosling and Williams play an acrimonious, working-class married couple with a daughter (Faith Wladyka, also excellent, yeah?); the movie flashes back to sadly happier times before Gosling’s balding: to the ubercute meet cute, the adorable courtship, the aborted abortion. (A colleague tells me that he wished the characters were closer to the movie’s targeted demographic—hipsters!—but I actively enjoyed that I was watching people whose station was different from my own.) Their present times are miserable, though they avoid Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-like fireworks, at least until the very end. I appreciate the maturity at play here, Ben, the painful portrait of two people out of love for no particular reason—he drinks too much beer, but he doesn’t hit her or anything, and he’s an irreproachable father. (He has the Giving Tree tattooed on his shoulder, fer Chrissake!) He’s a decent man asking to be loved by a woman who can’t, doesn’t, or won’t. We see glimpses of her awful father, suggesting that parents with fucked up relationships fuck up their kids’.
But that hints at what I don’t like about Blue Valentine: its often conspicuous artifice. I really didn’t like the Grizzly Bear soundtrack, maybe the movie’s worst aspect, which often marred what were otherwise perfectly affecting sequences. But I was also a bit put off by the on-the-nose digressions about love and romance, whether between Williams and her grandma or Gosling and his co-workers. (He’s a mover in the flashbacks, a housepainter in the present—a man’s man, no homo.) They get dangerously close to Charlyne Yi’s amazingly stupid interviews in Paper Heart. Though in one, in which Gosling ponders whether it’s possible to fall in love at first sight, he does suggest to his skeptical interlocutor, “maybe I’ve seen too many movies,” suggesting Cianfrance is at least aware of what he’s doing.
Well, whatever. I’m readily willing to look past these narrative, structural shortcomings if it means I can enjoy Gosling’s impossible charm. I’ve heard (here and here) that part of the acting prep was the three living in a house together, and the actors’ naturalistic rapport is stunningly apparent on the screen; when Wladyka says goodbye to Gosling near the end, you sense that the child actually thinks Gosling is leaving her forever—that it’s a personal moment between people and not a contrived one between actors. As such, this transcends Oscarbait acting—it’s something much, much more realistic that not only Academy voters but movie audiences in general are not accustomed to seeing. Tell me honestly, Ben: am I overreacting?
Not one bit, Henry. Although, as you suggest, the nearly total lack of overreaction within Blue Valentine also spells doom for its Oscar-baiting chances As we saw with that other sad-white-couple movie, only candidates who go through the requisite checklist of overwrought emotional highs and lows qualify for acting awards, and Gosling and Williams are just too damn subdued, too awkwardly, uncomfortably, hearbreakingly and charmingly subtle and realistic in their performances to upstage the fighting fighters and birdlike ballerinas vying for trophies this year. Blue Valentine is perfect Independent Spirit Awards fodder (in fact it notched a couple noms, though Gosling got snubbed), but it doesn’t stand a chance by lowly Oscar standards. And all that despite, I felt, a few capitulations to Academy-conscious emotional manipulation.
There was the Grizzly Bear score, as you point out, which certainly pushed more than a few completely self-sufficient scenes over the edge into hipster melodrama. The cross-cutting between courtship and coming apart didn’t bother me at first, but eventually it became annoying and predictable; every brutal moment of deepening sadness juxtaposed with bright backward-visions of young love. Why not just follow a two-part structure, opening as the couple forms and closing as it dissolves, rather than flipping back and forth through time? Also, the dead dog: total Oscar bait—man, if there were an Academy Award for best performance by an animal actor, as there clearly should be, getting a part alongside Michelle Williams would be every canine dramatist’s dream.
But I digress, because honestly, it takes some looking (and listening) to find anything really seriously the matter with Blue Valentine, which is such a wonderfully acted, sensitively written, carefully yet not-too-prettily shot and sparingly edited piece of filmmaking that its few lapses into awards season heartstring-tugging are quickly forgiven. Like when Cindy’s (Williams) jock ex and his bros drive all the way from small-town Pennsylvania to Long Island City to beat Dean (Gosling) up just as she’s trying to call him. It’s a bit much—in that nail-biting, Dial M for Murder sort of way—but it also illustrates nicely one of the things I like most about the film, one that reminded me a great deal of Greenberg: its portrayal of the sensitive, more-or-less symbolically handicapped leading man-child, socially awkward and sometimes infuriating in his naiveté, but also capable of great tenderness and honesty. This seems to be a marquee year for stories about these immature young men thrust into very grown-man situations, but none affords its emotionally ill-equipped male lead quite so much depth or intelligence as Gosling gets to reveal here, scene by scene and line by line.
So to reiterate, no, Henry, you’re not over-reacting. In fact, is it too early to declare Blue Valentine the Messenger of this year’s Oscar season, the emotionally and politically complex drama that’s much, much too good for its own awards odds? I’m afraid it’s not.
Categories Baited: Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Michelle Williams), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Ryan Gosling), Best Original Screenplay (Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, Cami Delavigne), Best Director (Derek Cianfrance), Best Original Score (Grizzly Bear).