It doesn't require obsessive, repeated viewings of Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married, Too? (only me? okay, I guess only me) to know that cinematic LTRs are fraught with danger and ridiculousness. From The Ugly Truth to Two for the Road to Scenes from a Marriage to Anti-Christ, if you're in love you're doomed. And you gays aren't in for anything easier: just watch Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together. Those dudes were sad all the time.
And this is how we like movie marriages to be. If they're worse than our own relationship we can leave the theater satisfied, knowing that the divorce reaper isn't coming for us just yet. So when Celine (Julie Delpy), late in this third installment of Richard Linklater's "why-dontcha-kiss-her-insteada-talkin-her-to-death" franchise, announces to her still-'90s-scraggly main squeeze Jesse (Ethan Hawke), "Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head into a toaster," it's easy to think, "I have personally never thought about killing myself via malapropism just to get away from my spouse. So we're doing great."
Celine and Jesse's 18-year affair began way back in 1994 with Before Sunrise, as the post-grunge kids whiled away a night with banter and a hopeful Daniel Johnston song, banter that lead to love and more talking in 2004's Before Sunset and that now finds them committed but still technically unmarried (a secret they keep from their two young daughters), dealing with what may be the first serious crack in their relationship. They live in France so it's not infidelity; instead, it's Jesse's desire to live closer to his American teenage son from an interim marriage. That means Celine may have to ditch her dream job to move to the U.S.
Pushing past the first two films' problematic demand that audiences be wooed and charmed by these two -- they're both attractive enough but neither one of them is going to scorch an indelible fascination-mark in your psyche -- Before Midnight wisely focuses on the slow lane of established love and the boring talk-work that goes into its maintenance. It's a sometimes arduous process of negotiating independence and sacrifice as long term turns into really long term and the sinkhole of shared identity threatens to swallow up the distinct people creating a lifetime together. Good for Linklater, then, that this pothole-scattered road isn't a chore to ride. By this point he (along with co-creators Delpy and Hawke) is so at ease with these characters that you can relax in their presence, interested but never worried. Almost too amiable in its execution, nothing burns going down because it's clear he cares for them deeply and wants them to stay together through all future hip surgeries and nursing home care (one reader already wrote to me with the hope that these films continue until Linklater makes his own Amour). And if that ease diminishes dramatic tension, it also finds Linklater confidently and casually laying down 10 minute shots of two people sitting in the front seat of a car talking and not causing you to fidget your way through it.
The result? When Celine and Jesse broach the question of the next fifty years and what they'd most like to change about the other in those coming decades, your first thought isn't, "Please, spare me fifty more years of these two." You feel them. And you've probably got a ready-made answer of your own.