Blue Valentine is one of those films that could have been a contender. Featuring great work out of both Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, flashing an innovative nonlinear storyline, and accepted by both Sundance and Cannes -- this would seem to be a film with some steam behind it. Only the last hour keeps it from chugging into Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind territory, only the final act prohibits it from being lovable.
The plot is a simple one, though the narrative's constant jumping does cause a bit of confusion. Ryan Gosling is a directionless young man ... until he meets Michelle Williams. She's studying to be a doctor and is a highly motivated individual. As the story opens we meet the duo's daughter, who is looking for their lost dog, Megan. Gosling is an all-American dad (well, except for the pernicious smoking habit) who takes up the cause to find Megan while Momma Williams gets the child ready for school. It's a functioning, if slightly grumpy, household.
Then we're whisked back to the couple's origin story. For fear of spoilers let's not cut too deeply into this; suffice it to say that much is explained about the state of the present-day relationship. Then it's back to the future, where Gosling is attempting to plan a getaway for the couple. His whimsy clearly rubs her stolidity the wrong way, but will they still be able to make it?
Perhaps. But what's galling about the final hour of the film is how it deconstructs the logic presented previously. Yes, relationships are an unnerving and contradictory happening, but many of the missteps seem to be pure contrivances. Feelings are hurt, but based on what? Characters are evidently a certain way, only we've had no prior knowledge of the traits exhibited. It comes off a bit like walking into a bar where a couple is in a fight. You know something's not quite right, but you're not sure where your allegiance should lie.
The final issue is one of balance. One of the characters is presented in a much more positive light than the other, meaning you do in fact pull for that person. Why Blue Valentine is structured in this manner is a mystery, because it seems to be going for a "realistic" love angle -- only one of the characters is villainous, allowing the audience to check out. Not ideal.
Still, I rate this film as highly as I do for the potential shown by newcomer Derek Cianfrance, and for the ambition of the project overall. It doesn't come off without a hitch (in fact, there are a few substantial hitches), but it doesn't completely thud either. Blue Valentine isn't the sort of film that requires appointment viewing, but if you're in the neighborhood, and a relationship is on your mind, and you're in dire need of some great acting, why not?