The Rise of the Marriage Crisis Movie

Falling somewhere between rom-com and break-up drama, a recent crop of films test the nature of matrimony—and show how ideas about infidelity and divorce have changed

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Warner Bros

Steve Carrell has a fine moment of pure swagger in this past summer's Crazy Stupid Love. His character, a swept-together professional named Cal Weaver, has endured the disclosure of infidelity by his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) and her request for a divorce, the confusion and indifference of his children, and a high-rent makeover by pickup artist Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling). After a blundering introduction to the singles' scene, he finally lands his killer line—"You're the perfect combination of cute and sexy"—on a teacher (Marisa Tomei) and takes her to his bachelor apartment. The next night, the doors of the bar open on a smiling, laughing, confident Cal, in slow motion, settling in for a montage of effortless seduction. Not quite married and not quite divorced, Cal Weaver becomes a joyful advertisement for taking a break from marriage.

Crazy Stupid Love exemplifies the growing genre of marriage-crisis movies, stories pitched between the winking optimism of the romantic comedy and the somber twilight of the divorce melodrama. In movies as varied as Hall Pass and The Kids Are All Right, as well as classics like The Grass is Greener (1960) and Two for the Road (1967), we meet the characters years or decades after ice-cream dates, meet-cute ER visits, and wedding photos have given way to domestic struggles and sexual frustration. Since these films all rely on nods of recognition from the audience, they must attempt to depict married life in realistic terms. To trace the genre's evolution over the years is to trace the evolution of American attitudes toward partnership, divorce, and adultery.

In Crazy Stupid Love, marriage is depriving us of sex and high culture. While Cal is cutting a swathe through the L.A. nightlife, Emily dines chastely with her sometime other man (Kevin Bacon), who promises to finally fulfill her girlhood dream of going to the ballet. The parenthesis in Cal and Emily's marriage grants each of them the chance to live their long-thwarted fantasies. Wish-fulfillment, and the sabbatical from marriage vows that enables it, is also at the heart of Hall Pass. Maggie and Grace (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate) fret over the crude behavior of their husbands Rick and Frank (Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis). Their doctor friend (played by Joy Behar) proposes the film's eponymous arrangement: a week off from marriage. "Remove the taboo and you remove the obsession," Behar tells them, and after all, she's a professional. Soon the wives are out of town and chugging beers with unsuitable men (no ballet tickets for them). Rick and Frank spend a week trying to relive their single days.

This casually provocative premise is taped up around the sort of scatological and masturbatory set-pieces for which the film's directors, the Farrelly brothers, are known (you have not known nostalgia for the old Hays Code until you've seen a grown man defecate in a sand bunker). But in its own foul-mouth way, Hall Pass painstakingly establishes the grounds for a week of marriage. Crazy Stupid Love, on the other hand, drops divorce on the audience in the first 30 seconds Why is it that a "hall pass" should seem like a more risqué plot device than the looming end of a decades-long marriage? Perhaps audiences have become acclimated to the idea of divorce, on-screen and off, while even just a week of open marriage is still cloaked in stigma. But the effect is the same either way: The pent-up disappointments of married life are allowed time for mending by virtue of some explicit exception.

While audiences are invited to identify with Emily's longing for the ballet in Crazy Stupid Love or with the priapic man-children of Hall Pass, the troubles that bedevil cinematic marriages don't need obvious gender stereotypes to hit home. In The Kids Are All Right (2010), Moore stars as Jules (this genre has been keeping Moore in steady work since 2002's Far From Heaven), an aspiring gardener raising a son and daughter with Nic (Annette Bening). The kids stir up trouble by making contact with their biological father Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Where Crazy begins with the divorce bombshell and Hall Pass with a treatise on male leering, The Kids Are All Right opts for a lighter touch. Jules and Nic are simply trying to manage their children's academic and social lives as they move through high school ("Mom, you're windshield-wipering," their son tells Jules as she searchingly strokes his forearm). The touching, funny, and ultimately painful scene establishing their disappointing sexual connection is so emotionally versatile that it didn't necessarily have to foreshadow adultery.

Yet the adultery comes, courtesy of Paul, his garden, and his own delayed curiosity about love and family. And despite the progressive setting—Joni Mitchell on the stereo, a kid named Laser, organic food, lots of wine—there is no hall pass and no trial separation on offer here. There's only attempted home-wrecking, anger, and sleeping on the couch. The violent emotional tone of the film's last act distinguishes it from the more easy-going Crazy and Hall Pass. Yet the film is less different than it seems. All three movies take a brittle, wounded, proprietary attitude toward sexual fidelity. Cal is stunned that a woman who's had one sexual partner her whole life might stray; Maggie and Grace are disgusted at the antics of their undersexed mates; Nic is hot with betrayal at the fact that her wife is attracted to the father of their children. In two cases a formal exception is made, and in the third it isn't.

This attitude toward adultery departs from the classics of the genre. The Grass is Greener found an American millionaire (Robert Mitchum) trespassing on the property and affections of a lady of Britain's lower aristocracy (Deborah Kerr). Soon she joins him in London on a transparent pretext, without any objection from her knowing husband (Cary Grant). Asked why he didn't stop her from seeing him again, Grant's Lord Rhyall explains, "If she hadn't, I'd have been the obstacle preventing her from seeing him again, and that would have damaged our relationship, even at the cost of encouraging theirs." It's the Hall Pass scenario, but with silent toleration rather than explicit permission as the hinge on which the action swings. "A spoken word, like a lost opportunity, does not come back," Rhyall's friend advises. It's advice that might have been profitably heeded by the characters in the more recent films.

When Grant's scheme to win his own wife back becomes revealed, they sit down for one of the great marriage-saving scenes in film. "If your mistress is unfaithful, she should be discarded," Grant pronounces. "If your wife is unfaithful, she should be befriended." "Meaning helped and patronized?" Kerr rebuffs. "Loved and cherished," Grant explains.

Likewise, when Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney cheat on each other in Two for the Road (1967), it's a painful but not shocking development. Both films take the somewhat old-fashioned view that adultery is a part of marriage rather than an interruption of it. Their characters meet it with more patience and dignity than any of the grieved spouses in the recent films. Divorce is an option in the older films, but a grim and even tragic one. In Crazy, on the other hand, Cal's co-worker roars with relief when he hears that Cal is only going through a divorce and not cancer. In the old movies, characters needed forgiveness, or at least indulgence for their wanderings. In the new movies, they need permission. And in the older movies, forgiveness was enough for a fresh start. In the new films, someone has to be punished. Cal's moment of glory, and the audience's chance to eat and have its cake, fades as he suffers a public humiliation. The characters in Hall Pass and The Kids Are All Right who act on their entirely plausible desires, have to pay for it somehow before their second chances. These films are telling us that marriage has become more, rather than less, rigid, both emotionally and sexually.

Yet all of these films—old and new, raunchy and restrained, comedic or serious-as-death-and-Blue—end up in essentially the same place. Moviegoers have never been averse to peeking a little ways down the road not taken, however the characters may suffer for doing it on our behalf. This seems to be an enduring feature of modern marriage. But we remain infatuated with the hope that, by whatever means it takes, the road not taken leads to the same place: happily ever after, more or less.