A film review by Craig J. Koban June 28, 2011

THE OTHER WOMAN j
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2011, R, 116 mins.

 

Natalie Portman: Emilia / Scott Cohen: Jack / Lisa Kudrow: Carolyn / Charlie Tahan: William 

 

Written and directed by Don Roos / based on the novel "Love And Other Pursuits" by Ayelet Waldman

There is one thing that THE OTHER WOMAN does with exemplary precision.

It provides us with characters that, within a few brief minutes, we grow to detest.  This is a problem, though, considering that the film is intended, I think, to be an uplifting and heart-warming family drama.  Let’s just say that I was neither uplifted nor had my heart warmed.  THE OTHER WOMAN contains characters I didn’t like involved in petty family squabbles I didn’t care about and provides insights into the nature of upper class divorce and step-parenthood that I never found revelatory or compelling.  What we have is a parade of rich, over-privileged, and overbearing people making stupid life choices.  Imagine being stuck in a room with a family that perpetually argues for 90-plus minutes and you’ll have an idea of what sitting through THE OTHER WOMAN is like. 

The film is based on a novel – unread by me – with a much better and snappier title, LOVE AND OTHER PURISTS by Ayelet Waldman and has people behind the camera of talent, to be sure.  The director is Don Roos, well known and established for writing strong female roles (THE OPPOSITE OF SEX) and the last film of his I saw, HAPPY ENDINGS, was an ambitious oddball mixture that I merrily described in my review as “Quentin Tarantino meets DAYS OF OUR LIVES.”  THE OTHER WOMAN also has the always-ravishing Natalie Portman as its lead actress. 

However, here’s my issue with the film: THE OTHER WOMAN is just not as dramatically fearless and ambitious as Roos’ previous efforts, nor is his acuity for snappy, blunt, and matter-of-fact dialogue that cuts to the heart of scenes anywhere apparent here.  Roos’s screenplay adaptation for THE OTHER WOMAN feels shapeless, dull, and mechanically soap-opera-esque instead of being searing.  Secondly, there’s Portman herself, and I will not hide from the fact that, yes, I have crushed on her as an actress for years, but she gives a performance that’s too jagged and uncoordinated to become involved in, not to mention that the role she plays is, for the most part, dislikeable.  Consider this: she plays a home wrecker and an adulterer that spends most of the film sulking, pouting, crying, and complaining - not the stuff of audience empathy.  

Okay, Portman’s Emilia does have one thing to be distressed about: she lost her newborn baby to mysterious (at least at the beginning of the film) circumstances that has left her deeply depressed.  After a brief montage of images showing the baby’s birth (the only bit of visual and stylistic interest in the film) we are whisked to the present we see her having more issues than just dealing with the grief of her dead child.  Firstly, she stole her current husband, a lawyer named Jack (a decent Scott Cohen) away from his bitch-in-heels, high powered, and independent minded wife, Carolyn (Lisa Kudrow, in a strong and acid-tongued performance playing, granted, a weakly cobbled together character).  Of course, Carolyn despises Emilia, but can you blame her?  Emilia, after all, once worked at the same office as Jack and now she’s married to him. 

It’s more complicated than that: we learn that the baby that died was actually the product of a pre-marriage fling between Jack and Emilia.  Clearly, Emilia has deep issues coming to grips with losing the baby and the thought of being a proud mother figure, which figures heavily in her current relationship with her new stepson, William (Charlie Tahan) who seems to take great pleasure in reminding Emilia about her baby’s short time spent on Earth (“You know, according to Jewish law, your baby was not technically a person,” he coldly tells her at one point).  Not only is the rift between Emilia and William growing more stressful and problematic by the day, it has the negative side effect of ruining her marriage to Jack.  And then there are Emilia’s own parental issues with her father, who she once caught with a Russian-born stripper. 

I mean, wow…if that plot synopsis sounded like another lame and sensationalistic daytime soap opera then you’re not alone.  I guess that want confounds THE OTHER WOMAN’s lackluster script is that it can’t seem to understand whether it wants to play things for drama or laughs, which leaves the whole film feeling very scattershot.  The script is also convenient for how it manufactures conflict and easily and shamelessly comes up with solutions when it’s deemed necessary.  Consider Kudrow’s divorced wife, for a second: Yes, she should be a spiteful and hate-filled character and has valid reasons for despising Emilia.  Yet, near the film’s conclusion, the pair have a laughably unrealistic meeting during which they discuss their relationship and, as astounding as it sounds, gives Emilia a sense of closure about the real nature of her baby’s death.  If only life were scripted so opportunely.  

I think that if the characters in the film were, say, lower or middle class than I would have perhaps latched on to them more, but the people that populate THE OTHER WOMAN are filthily affluent and well off, which makes all of their cardinal interpersonal blunders and conflicts seem all the more excruciating to relate to.  Again, this is not aided by the fact that Emilia is rarely an amiable or relatable figure in the film, outside of the sympathy we feel for her because of her lost child.  The problem, though, is that she is a second wife, a cheater, a home wrecker, and a truly horrible stepmother to William.  Can you really fault William for hating her either?  I will concede, however, that Portman does an effective job of evoking this woman’s self-absorption, but when called upon to impart some humility and warmth into her, Portman seems lost. 

William, on the other hand, is an almost equally insufferable character.  It’s never really fully explained, for example, why he harbors so much pent-up hostility towards Emilia’s dead baby, and his frequent pestering digs at her and her wounded memories of the child seem inhumanly cold.  There’s also another thing that annoyed me about William: he seems less like a tangibly believable bright-minded and emotionally vulnerable 8-year-old child conflicted by family strife and is more of one of those irritatingly smug, defiant, and unrealistically sharp tongued child characters that only an adult screenwriter could conjure.  There are times when I just wanted to reach out and slap William for being a self-centered and uncaring brat.  The fact that these two wholeheartedly unsavory characters have an obligatory scene where they make up and exchange “I love you’s” makes the film’s emotionality feel all the more forced.

There is probably only one real reason that this film had a limited theatrical run earlier this past January. IFC decided to market and distribute it in anticipation of Portman getting a Best Actress nomination for BLACK SWAN (which she did).  It should be noted that THE OTHER WOMAN was shot waaaaaay back in 2009 until it sat on the shelf for just the right time to release, which oftentimes is industry talk meaning that the film is so uninspiring and bland that it was not ready for a large theatrical release.  THE OTHER WOMAN does contain individual moments of levity and Roos at least accurately portrays Upper East Side Manhattenites, I suppose.  Kudrow is also effective as a fiery cauldron of resentment in her performance.  The real issue, alas, with THE OTHER WOMAN is that it’s just more instantly forgettable than terrible.    

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