Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Saga Of Scarlett Johansson Continues With Oscar Wilde's A Good Woman

The Good: Great lines, Some decent performances, Great direction
The Bad: Characters and plot rather standard, Some flat performances
The Basics: With amusing wit and little character development, Mike Barker's A Good Woman does its best with Oscar Wilde's play for an entertaining evening.

In my review of In Good Company (here!), I came to realize that despite understanding the appeal of Scarlett Johansson, I've yet to see her in anything where her performance has wowed me. So, I sat down with the film A Good Woman to continue my quest to be impressed by Johansson. My quest continues . . .

Meg Windermere is twenty and married to Robert, and together on holiday in 1930s Italy they prepare for Meg's twenty-first birthday. Robert soon runs into the notorious Mrs. Erlynne, a woman who has a habit of living off other women's husbands. Rumors soon begin to fly that Robert is involved with Mrs. Erlynne, even as a kinder older gentleman named Tuppy pursues Mrs. Erlynne out of love.

A Good Woman is adapted from Oscar Wilde's play by Howard Himelstein and directed by Mike Barker. Barker is excellent in his direction on the film, emphasizing aspects of character and plot that would be difficult - if not impossible - to convey through a play. So, for example, during a critical scene involving a checkbook, Barker keeps the camera focused on the ledger and the details of the ledger, which is using the medium very well. Barker plays with such details for maximum impact and it works.

The thing is, the movie is still Oscar Wilde fare and that means two things. The first is that Wilde was obsessed with people and gossip and socialites and it's a very different world from the one most of us live in. Those not part of "society" tend to find the pretenses and machinations pretentious at best, silly at worst. Throughout the film there are gossips who are telling the audience what society is saying, in the form of the Countess Lucchino and Tuppy's friends (who are reminiscent of Statler and Waldorf of The Muppet Show). In A Good Woman, these characters are more annoying than helpful because director Mike Barker makes clear by showing all that they would tell. In addition to appearing superfluous, they slow down the movie and weaken any emotional resonance of the main characters. They are an annoying distraction.

The second problem most viewers will run into is the language of Oscar Wilde. Wilde was a genius of observation and wit. It's almost impossible to deny that few could quip better than Wilde. The problem is, it doesn't make for coherent dialogue. While this is a period film and one might expect some archaic dialogue, viewers ought to know that - even in his time - no one talks like they do in a Wilde play. So, for those who watch the film and think that every line is going over their head, that's not necessarily you, well it might be YOU, but in general, it's Wilde. Wilde is brilliant with observations, weak on stringing them together into coherent lines of dialogue.

So, for example, great lines in A Good Woman include such observations as "I like America. Name me another society that's gone from barbarism to decadence with bothering to create a civilization in between" (Darlington). This is responded to by Tuppy, who returns, "A tribute to American efficiency." Conversation done. Wilde makes great observations and delightful rejoinders, but the average conversation in A Good Woman is three to five lines long.

That's a problem from the script up and as a result, a lot of the characters seem awkward. In life, we're used to conversations that happen with real exchanges. They take time, they develop. In A Good Woman, everyone is a wit and that's mostly all they exchange. When Mrs. Erlynne begins to truly open up with Robert, it is almost entirely for plot exposition and filling in backstory. It also comes far too late in the movie for most of us to care.

Scarlett Johansson is adequate as Meg. I'm looking for more than adequate from Johansson. She gets around all of the awkward dialogue written for her, but her performance still seems stiff. I recognize that she is playing a young woman and someone who is overly concerned with what society thinks, but there's no zest, no spark in Johansson's performance that makes her feel real or human. Or like her character has real potential to grow.

Mark Umbers, who plays Robert is even flatter. His performance is downright bland.

Conversely, the two senior members of the main cast make the film worth the recommend. Tom Wilkinson, who supplied perhaps the only truly decent performance in the terrible The Last Kiss (reviewed here!), is wonderful as Tuppy. Wilkinson has the spark in the eye, the wistful quality to the voice and stance that sell us on the idea of the aging divorcee who wants to give marriage another try. Wilkinson steals every scene he's in.

Helen Hunt leads the cast as Mrs. Erlynne, which relieves the viewer of the question of "Whatever happened to Helen Hunt?" Hunt is great as Erlynne, subtly playing a role that could be flamboyant and garish. Instead, she is understated, clever and a real pleasure to watch. Hunt has charm that is essential to convincing the audience of the reality of her character. In A Good Woman, she displays that charm with expert grace.

Ultimately, A Good Woman is a fun movie, though typically Wilde. The lines are good, even if they are somewhat disjointed and prevent genuine character development. The costumes are decent and while I would not buy this for my permanent collection, it's certainly worth a viewing. Just don't look to it to sell Scarlett Johansson.

For other works featuring Helen Hunt, check out my reviews of:
What Women Want
Pay It Forward
As Good As It Gets


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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