The Good: Great performances, Realism of interrelationships, Most of the direction
The Bad: Universally unlikable characters, Moments of direction
The Basics: The Other Woman has just enough in it for me to recommend, but is plagued by a fundamental character problem that makes it hard for me to recommend in any enthusiastic way.
As a movie reviewer, there are very few movies I do not hear about before they are released in the theaters. So, when I was walking around with my wife a few months back and my wife and I saw The Other Woman on DVD, I was surprised. I was shocked that Natalie Portman released a film that I had not heard of until it hit DVD. So, today I got The Other Woman out of the library and we watched it. And, the short of it is, I can see why The Other Woman was never given much in the way of fanfare.
The Other Woman is a difficult movie to watch. Despite the title suggesting it is about infidelity, the film is much more about the complexities that come from being a second wife and the mother of a baby who died very young. Those who have issues with death of babies and issues surrounding divorce and infidelity are unlikely to enjoy The Other Woman. The film is wrenching almost the entire movie and a big part of the problem with the movie is how it is set up. Writer and director Don Roos (based on Ayelet Waldman's novel) has a serious issue that guts the emotional credibility of the film, which is that the protagonist gets involved with a married man. That makes it hard to take seriously her anger at her father and at her new husband. The Other Woman is troubling as well because all of the characters are unlikable. As my wife noted, as she has noted many, many times before, throughout the movie, "Women are such bitches to each other!" And in The Other Woman all of them are. Most everyone in the movie is actually rotten to one another and that makes the movie more unpleasant to watch than, say Magnolia (reviewed here!).
Told out of order, The Other Woman focuses on Emilia Greenleaf. Struggling to deal with her stepson and her husband's ex-wife, she recalls how she became involved with Jack before his marriage to Carolyn was over. Getting upset with her stepson William for suggesting they sell "the baby's" stuff on eBay, Emilia remembers falling in love with Jack and the struggle to get a place in William's life. When William is difficult and afraid of everything, Emilia disbelieves that he is lactose intolerant and she tries to get him ice skating without a helmet.
But when the pregnancy that split up Carolyn and Jack up brings Jack and Emilia baby Isabel, the relationship seems like it might be all right. But eight days after Isabel is born, she dies and this strains the family. With Carolyn getting pregnant and pulling both Jack and William, Emilia tries to get the relationship right while she reconciles with the infidelity issues she had from her own father.
The Other Woman is heavy-handed and complex. But the complexity is irksome in some serious ways. Emilia has serious issues with the way her father treated her mother, yet she cheats with Jack. That fundamental problem with the character makes it hard to take her indignation seriously. And she is indignant a lot. So that makes a lot of the movie hard to take seriously.
More than that, so many of the characters are overtly cruel to one another. For sure, Carolyn has a lot of reasons to dislike Emilia, but the level of her hatred for her is so extreme as to be utterly unwatchable. The most likable characters in the movie, Mindy and Simon, are barely in the film, but the main cast is dominated by characters who are unlikable, treating one another horribly. Even William's school teacher is a jerk in her two scenes, with a laughable line "I will not let you destroy . . ." William's artwork moments after Carolyn tears it in half.
But, as difficult as the movie is and as unlikable as the characters are, the four main performers are absolutely amazing in their roles. Scott Cohen, who I have not seen since the early seasons of Gilmore Girls (reviewed here!) is charismatic as Jack and the movie uses the performer's easygoing acting style well enough that it is actually surprisingly easy to like Jack after a point. Charlie Tahan gives an unsettling performance as William. The portrayal of the kid is unsettling in that he is so obnoxious and hurtful as a kid that what he says seems twice as insensitive, but Tahan sells it. Sure, in the moments Tahan is at his worst, I found myself wondering what kind of parent Jack was that he had not spoken to his son about issues pertaining to Isabel's death, but Tahan sells the moments convincingly.
Natalie Portman gives her usual sterling performance. Portman is serious, emotionally vulnerable and plays Emilia as a woman who legitimately is trying her best to do what is right for all concerned (save Carolyn after a point). Portman is good, even when her character is loathsome.
But the one who steals The Other Woman is Lisa Kudrow. Those who fell in love with Kudrow's performance on Friends (reviewed here!) will find her virtually unrecognizable as Carolyn. Kudrow plays Carolyn as cold, momentarily maniacal and the uber-bitch. Watching her and hearing the lines she delivers is enough to make one's stomach clench up in disgust. But what sells Kudrow's performance is the scene late in the film where Carolyn and Emilia face one another and discuss in very cold, hard, terms Isabel's death. In that scene, Carolyn becomes human, against her better judgment and it is Kudrow's acting that makes it seem like it is not a different character.
On DVD, The Other Woman includes only the film's trailer and sneak previews for other IFC films. Ultimately, I've decided two things. The first is that The Other Woman is an absolutely horrible title for this movie and as such when my wife and I sat down to it, we were utterly unprepared for the film and I would never have subjected her to a film like this had I known the intensity of the baby death in the storyline. It's a horrible title. And as bad as the character flaw with Emilia is in clinging to anger when she is an adulterer herself, the movie is not bad. It's not perfect, but just because it is difficult should not disqualify it from being considered good. But the way it is good is in an academic way: the film succeeds because the ratings for things like plot, acting and directing (except for moments when Portman and Tahan fall down by falling out of frame because, I'm guessing, Roos couldn't afford stuntpeople) score high and the character elements actually score high despite some serious flaws. In other words, the movie is good by the numbers, but it is utterly unpleasant to watch. As such, it is, objectively, an eight out of ten . . . but I'm not recommending people see it.
For other works featuring Natalie Portman, check out my reviews of:
No Strings Attached
The Star Wars Saga
8/10 (not recommended)
For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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