Sundance Film Festival 2019: State of the Union
By Andrea Thompson
“State of the Union” may be about yet another middle class marriage in crisis, but it's still got a few things going for it. One, it has a pair of actors whose very particular set of skills mesh well together. Two, their crisis is being told in a series of conversations that last about ten minutes each, and mostly just consists of the two of them, with each series episode lasting about the 10 minutes the couple takes to talk to each other, an interesting format Sundance TV is betting will pay off. And when you have a director like Stephen Frears and a writer by the name of Nick Hornby, that bet looks a lot safer.
The couple the series revolves around consists of Tom and Louise, played by Rosamund Pike and Chris O'Dowd. Their meeting first seems like an awkward first date in a pub, only to turn out to be a prelude to their weekly marriage counseling sessions. As a married couple in crisis, the two play well off each other, and one of the smartest decisions “State of the Union” makes is to use Pike and O'Dowd's different comedic styles to great effect.
For some, it's a much-needed reminder that Pike is capable of humor. While O'Dowd is well-known mainly for his work in comedy, it's easy to forget Pike actually has any talent for the lighter things in film, which is a forgivable mistake. It's not just that Pike is still best remembered by many as the murderous Amy Dunne in “Gone Girl,” she's also recently garnered some well-deserved praise for her incredible portrayal of journalist Marie Colvin in “A Private War.”
Let's hope Pike manages to squeeze in a few more comedies, because she can not only hold her own with O'Dowd, she's fun to watch while she does, even if at some points it feels like the same old material. Much like their contrasting approaches, “State of the Union” makes Tom and Louise a union of opposites. Louise is a doctor and has been the sole breadwinner since Tom lost his job as a music critic, which has been one of the causes of Tom losing much of his passion, in his life and marriage. As a result, his wife slept with another man, which led them to counseling.
As they both agree, many things led to where they are. Yet the root causes seem much the same as in many on-screen portraits of troubled marriages, as do some of the conclusions they come to. The other couples Tom and Louise see on their way to counseling seem far more interesting, with even the constantly fighting, dysfunctional couple after a while looking far preferable to the calm, passionless state Tom and Louise have arrived at.
They do go through their ups and downs, and it's easy to get invested in them, but not to get truly anxious. It's pretty apparent where “State of the Union” intends them to end up, not to mention how baffling it is that it takes them weeks to just decide to tell each other the truth without subtext. It's also admirable that the series doesn't pretend that any relationship will eventually arrive at a place completely free from hardship. Stability is possible, but like practically every portrayal of marriage, what that stability supposedly consists of looks rather bleak. Louise is shamed for feeling bored by her marriage, but feeling bored and stifled and unhappy is a pretty good reason to make a mistake. Then again, Louise doesn't like black and white movies, and Tom voted for Brexit. Maybe they deserve each other.
Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.