A Good Marriage, Anthony LaPaglia, bad husbands, based on a novella, Cara Buono, cinema, coin-collecting, dramas, dysfunctional marriage, film reviews, films, Frank G DeMarco, husband-wife relationship, Joan Allen, Kristen Connolly, literary adaptation, Mike O'Malley, Movies, Peter Askin, psychological thriller, psychos, secret lives, serial killer, serial killers, Stephen King, Stephen King's A Good Marriage, Stephen Lang, Theo Stockman, thrillers
How well do we really know our loved ones? Sure, everyone keeps the occasional secret but is it actually possible to be married to someone for a quarter century and not realize that they’re actually a monstrously insane serial killer? This notion of the “beloved stranger” forms the crux of horror master Stephen King’s novella “A Good Marriage” and, by default, the crux of Peter Askin’s cinematic adaptation of said material, handily titled Stephen King’s A Good Marriage (2014).
By their very nature, literary adaptations can be hit-or-miss but adaptations of King’s works seem to be even more so: for every solid to great version of a Stephen King tome, there are at least three hackneyed also-rans waiting in the wings. With the master himself actually penning this particular screenplay, does A Good Marriage end up on the “winning” column or, you know…the other side? Let’s find out, gentle readers, as we take a closer look at a relationship where “til death do us part” takes on a whole other meaning.
From the outside looking in, Bob (Anthony LaPaglia) and Darcy (Joan Allen) seem to have life locked down pretty solid. They’ve just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, they’re surrounded by loving friends and family, including their adult children Petra (Kristen Connolly) and Donnie (Theo Stockman), they have a nice house and genuinely seem to be in love with each other: even this far into their relationship, Bob calls his wife a “hot piece of ass” and they have a sex life that’s a least as healthy as folks half their ages. In other words: life is pretty damn good.
As a travelling insurance salesman, Bob is on the road quite a bit, which is all just another facet of life for the adoring Darcy: he’s a workaholic who also pursues a lifelong love of coin-collecting, searching around the country for a particular penny that will complete his collection and make him even happier. In a nice move, Darcy is not only supportive of her husband’s hobby but seems to get a kick out of it herself, to the point where she offers to buy her hubby the penny (for a mere $9K, to boot) as a gift: he won’t hear of it, however, since the “hunt” is most of the fun.
One night, while Bob is on the road, Darcy goes hunting for batteries in the garage and discovers that her husband has another hobby: turns out he’s a brutal serial killer named “Beadie” who tortures and murders innocent women, all while taunting the police and media with “clues,” mailing the victims’ IDs back as proof of his “conquests.” The S&M mag that Darcy discovers is bad enough but the little box with the latest ID? That, friends and neighbors, is a bridge too far.
Things go from “simmer” to “boiling over” when Bob returns, unexpectedly, and handily puts the whole thing together: his genial confession is, hands-down, a real corker and sets the stage for the rest of our little couples’ ride into Hell. Darcy offers to just “put it all behind them” if Bob will only agree to quit killing people: after 25 years, there’s gotta be a little give and take, ya know? Plus, with Petra’s wedding on the horizon, Darcy doesn’t want anything to ruin her little girl’s big day: having your father hauled away as a serial killer tends to put a damper on the good times, after all. When Bob starts giving comely next-door-neighbor Betty (Cara Buono) the eye, however, Darcy realizes that leopards rarely change their spots. Will Darcy be able to hold it all together or is her “good marriage” about to head to a very bad place, indeed?
For the most part, Askin’s adaptation is a thoroughly workmanlike, efficient film, spotlighted by an incredibly all-in performance by LaPaglia and a slightly less satisfying one by Allen: too often, her scenes devolve into hysterical sobbing as swelling strings soar on the score, while LaPaglia gets to cycle through just about every emotion/mannerism in the book. There’s also a good performance by the always interesting Stephen Lang, as a ruthlessly tenacious former cop, although the character doesn’t really have much to do with the story, overall: he pops up, from time to time, and then makes his “big” appearance in the film’s final reel, none of which really affect the film in any meaningful way.
The film looks good enough, with the exception of a really crappy opening black-and-white sequence (kind of a shock, given that cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco was also responsible for Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) and All is Lost (2013), both of which looked amazing) and the score is fairly unobtrusive whenever the strings are taking a break. It ends up being about 10-20 minutes too long, at almost two hours (especially considering the novella format of the original story), although that’s certainly not an issue endemic to this film, alone.
Where the film really falls apart, however, is in the almost complete lack of tension and suspense: despite the subject matter, the stakes always seem alarmingly low, the action virtually toothless. Part of this is due to the fact that almost every genuine suspense scene in the film is revealed to be either a dream or a figment of someone’s imagination. Time and time again, tension is built up only to be released in the lamest way possible: ie, Darcy wakes up and goes back to bemoaning her situation. It’s one of my oldest pet peeves and one of the surest fire ways to really get my goat: suffice to say, A Good Marriage must’ve needed an awfully large barnyard for all that livestock.
The other major issue with the film has more to do with its structure. Unlike the best of King’s stories, A Good Marriage is unnecessarily drawn-out, treading water for far too long in between necessary plot points. Although I’m sure I’ve read the original story when I was younger (I ravenously devoured any and all King literature when I was a wee one), I can’t, for the life of me, recall anything about it. Since King also wrote the script for the film version, however, I have to assume that they’re fairly similar: this means, of course, that the original story probably didn’t work, either.
After finishing the film, I reflected back on what might have (for me, at least) worked better: while I’ve never been a huge fan of “what ifs” in film criticism (I’m of the opinion that what ya get is what ya get), there definitely seem to be fundamental ways to streamline the action. For curiosity’s sake, I’ll take a look at two.
In the first “Bizarro-world” version of Askin’s film, the entire movie takes place on the evening that Darcy discovers Bob’s secret. In this scenario, the focus goes to the cat-and-mouse quality of Bob and Darcy’s relationship, allowing for a slow ratcheting up of tension before arriving at the same denouement. This eliminates the slack pace and unnecessary script diversions (like Petra’s wedding), yet still allows us to keep the nature of the revelation and response intact.
The second “Bizzaro-world” version turns the threat to Betty from red herring to white-knuckle. In this scenario, it all plays out as given, with Darcy making Bob promise to be good, etc. The difference comes with the scene where Bob first “checks out” Betty, as Darcy watches: in this go-around, Darcy would need to spring into action in order to prevent Bob from harming her neighbor/friend, which would lead us, ironically, to the same natural conclusion as the others. As with the first scenario, this plays up the cat-and-mouse aspect: Bob and Darcy would both, in effect, be running a game on each other…the tension would come from the realization that Darcy would need to destroy everything she has in order to protect Betty’s life, which would give much more resonance to the proceedings.
At the end of the day, however, speculations about “how it coulda been” are so much stuff and nonsense: in the end, the only version of Askin’s film that we have is the one before us. While I didn’t agree with many of the choices and think Allen could’ve been given a much stronger character, A Good Marriage still ends up being a decent, middle-of-the-road thriller. Hell: any film that features LaPaglia smirking and charming his way through the role of a batshit-crazy killer is always going to have a leg up on a film that doesn’t. File this with the ones that get the job done: not amazing, not terrible but just good enough.