Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams Are Heartbreakingly Real in ‘Blue Valentine’

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CHICAGO – Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” my pick last month for the 9th best film of 2010, is a devastatingly genuine representation of the first and final chapters of a marriage. It is a powerful drama, partially made so by a fantastic script, but mostly due to two of the best performances of the year from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Don’t miss it.

The intent of “Blue Valentine” is not to make any broad or grand statements about the institution of marriage (even if it does portray the often-ignored fact that many young people end up betrothed more through circumstance than romance) but to present a slice of life, the kind of character study that Hollywood doesn’t make that often any more possibly because there aren’t that many actors as talented as Gosling and Williams who can pull it off.

Blue Valentine
Blue Valentine
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

Giving what I consider the best actor performance of the year (for more, check out this feature, where you’ll find copious praise for his co-star as well), Ryan Gosling stars as Dean, a likable but unfocused guy. We all know or have known someone like Dean. He’s not quite ambitious enough to make it out of his rut in life but he’s a good father and he truly does love his wife. The problem is that he also loves the freedom to drink in the morning that his blue-collar life affords him.

Actually, it’s not really fair to call an 8am beer “the problem” because perhaps the most remarkable thing about Cianfrance’s script is that it doesn’t hang its marital woes on a typically clichéd event or condition. It’s not about an alcoholic or a cheater or an unsupportive spouse – it is more about that steady, numbing decline that faces many couples, especially those who get married far too young.

Dean’s better half is Cindy (Williams), a young lady whose love for her husband has clearly dissipated over the years if it was ever there in the first place. Through flashbacks, we learn that Dean was kind of just there at the right time for Cindy, running into her at a nursing home of all places and then refusing to walk away after a passionate romance and an unplanned pregnancy.

Blue Valentine
Blue Valentine
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

Cianfrance’s script is structured so we see the final 24 hours or so of Dean and Cindy’s relationship intercut with the moments that got them together in the first place. It may sound like a cheesy set-up but it’s handled realistically enough that it never feels like a cliché. Instead, it shades both halves of the story in intense melancholy. When we hear Dean play what is clearly “their song” in a cheesy hotel room, trying to rekindle something that’s not there anymore, and then hear that song in happier times, the audience is aware of something that the characters will learn, which is that even cherished moments can lose their power. Seeing a relationship grow with the knowledge that it has a limited shelf life makes for a very unusual love story.

Of course, none of “Blue Valentine” would work if the viewer doubted the emotional truth of it for even a second. The smartest decision made at any point in production was hiring two of the most believable actors of their generation in Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, a pair who seem incapable of striking emotional chords that don’t resonate. They are both simply spectacular and if the Oscars ignore them, as some pundits are predicting they will, we will have two new entries on the list of the most notable Academy snubs of all time.

As American film seems to be getting further and further away from character studies of average people, it’s a minor miracle to see a film as devastatingly honest as “Blue Valentine.” In an era built around easily-sold hooks, the only one here is the rare truth on display through two of the best performances in a very long time.

‘Blue Valentine’ stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. It was written by Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, & Cami Delavigne and directed by Cianfrance. It opens in Chicgao on January 7th, 2011. It is rated R.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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