January 04, 2011

Other Woman, The

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Other Woman, The

DRAMA:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2011-02-04

Running Length:

1:59

MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity, Sexual Content)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Natalie Portman, Scott Cohen, Charlie Tahan, Lisa Kudrow

Director:

Don Roos

Screenplay:

Don Roos, based on the novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman

Cinematography:

Steve Yedlin

Music:

John Swihart

U.S. Distributor:

IFC Films

Subtitles:

none


We have reached the Season of Natalie Portman. With no fewer than six movies due to be released within a six-month period (Black Swan, The Other Woman, No Strings Attached, Hersher, Your Highness, Thor), a confirmed Golden Globe nomination (and probable win), a likely Oscar nomination (and possible win), a pregnancy, and an engagement, Portman has suddenly become ubiquitous. IFC has elected to distribute and market The Other Woman in anticipation of Portman receiving a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for Black Swan. (It will run on Video on Demand beginning January 1, 2011 and will open in limited theatrical distribution on February 4, 2011.) Otherwise, this film likely would have been headed for obscurity. It's not good enough to warrant a theatrical showing but not bad enough to deserve universal derision. Riding Portman's Oscar coattails will increase its profile, and Portman is neither good enough nor bad enough in The Other Woman for her performance to impact her chances for Black Swan. This won't be another Norbit. (That movie, released during the Oscar voting period when Eddie Murphy was nominated for Dreamgirls, is widely credited for killing the actor's chances of taking home a gold statuette.)

The Other Woman, which began life with the catchier title of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, is a family drama that wants viewers to leave uplifted. Unfortunately, that's not really what happens. The film's success rests on Portman's broadening shoulders, but her performance, like the production as a whole, is uneven. Portman is very good when it comes to scenes that require emotional distance and coldness, but when she is expected to show warmth and vulnerability, she is at times unconvincing. For the movie's ending to have the impact director Don Roos intends, she needs to be sympathetic, but that's not in evidence.

The Other Woman, which is based on a book by Ayelet Waldman, is a family drama wrapped around a tragedy. The film begins in the present, with Emilia Greenleaf (Portman) having trouble connecting with her young stepson, William (Charlie Tahan), while recognizing the growing distance between herself and her husband, Jack (Scott Cohen). As we learn through flashbacks, Emilia was once Jack's mistress, but he left his ex-wife, Carolyn (Lisa Kudrow), to be with Emilia, and that created bad feelings. At the time of the marriage, Emilia was pregnant, but the baby girl died three days after birth. Emilia also has "Daddy issues" that date to a time when she caught her father engaged in an affair with a Russian-born stripper.

Emilia is, generally speaking, an unpleasant person who seems to be reaping her karmic just desserts. She is, after all, a home wrecker, and it's no surprise that William resents her. What's left unresolved is whether his digs at her regarding his dead sister ("According to Jewish Law, Isabel didn't live long enough to be a real person") are the result of anger or a child's naiveté. I think Roos wants viewers to be sympathetic toward Emilia, but Portman does such a good job portraying her cold, self-absorbed side that it's difficult. And, on those occasions when Emilia is intended to show humanity, Portman is unable to convey the necessary emotion.

There is an undercurrent of deep sadness in all of this, and we can feel the pain. As gradually becomes apparent, everything in the film is connected to Isabel's death. It has deflated Emilia, created a distance between her and Jack, and resulted in an ambivalent relationship between Emilia and William. We sometimes don't understand her motivations regarding the child. For example, in an attempt to become closer to him, she takes him to get ice cream. When he notes he's lactose intolerant, she ignores this and lies to him, telling him the ice cream has been sprinkled with a powder that will allow him to eat it safely.

Roos has done fine work in the past in the areas of drama (Bounce) and comedy (The Opposite of Sex). Although there is some dark humor here, this is basically a straightforward Lifetime-style movie with a high profile cast and top-notch production values. It churns the emotions (although it might have been more effective with a better balanced lead actress) but the ending is rushed and unconvincing. It may work for those in search of a good cry but as a story of a damaged woman to touch the soul, it misses the mark.

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