Blue Valentine Review: When Emo-Fascists Attack
Among the most anticipated titles of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival -- as well as one of its most haunted, troubled productions -- the Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams relationship saga Blue Valentine finally reached the screen at Sunday afternoon's world premiere. Twelve years in the making, director Derek Cianfrance's film endured more stops, starts and development hiccups than perhaps any other in the festival competition. I desperately wanted to like it. Alas, there could be no more screeching halt than the plotless, indulgent, grueling, indier-than-thou melodrama that ensued after the lights went down.
Cianfrance first came to Sundance in 1998 with his feature debut Brothers Tied, a striking, modulated drama that would be the director's last until arriving this year with Valentine. Part of the hold-up was its conceptual ambition; a deeply personal story based in part on his own experience with divorced parents, the tale of Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) contrasts the present-day pit of their marriage with flashbacks depicting the couple's early romance and the seeds that precipitated its downfall. The approach presents one of the Sundanciest of clichés (last year alone featured such disjointed love stories as Peter and Vandy and (500) Days of Summer), but nothing so insurmountable that it must alienate the viewer by default. And in fact, with actors as gifted, smart and fearless as Gosling and Williams on the scene, Blue Valentine seemed a can't-lose proposition once it finally got rolling.
Except Valentine never does get rolling. To the contrary, it squeals and belches and stalls time and again, scene after scene, held hostage by Cianfrance's lack of discipline and Gosling's surfeit of self-satisfaction. Poor Williams occupies the base of this top-heavy creative triangle, once again playing the topless victim and struggling to anchor the boys' brooding as it stagnates and rots into the present day. Indeed, her Cindy represents the lone ambition in the story itself. When we meet her in rural Pennsylvania, she's a flustered mother and wife; her husband Dean is no more mature than their 5-year-old daughter. Cindy's distance from him is evident in her virtual allergy to eye contact and her haste to flee to work, where she's a nurse for a slimy doctor urging her to take a newer, better job out of town. The suggestions glance off Williams's shellshocked face -- one reflecting the acceptance if not quite the understanding of how she ever got to this point.
After all, in better days she was a good-hearted college student with a lousy boyfriend and strict parents who finds romantic rescue in the arms of the very same Dean, a high-school dropout who lavishes her with marble-mouthed entreaties and other sloppy charms. It takes another impossibly chance meet-cute on a city bus before she succumbs to him, however -- or rather him and his ukelele, which Dean strums as Cindy dances in an impromptu musical number that helps Cianfrance mark "twee" off his Sundance qualifications checklist.
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