THE OTHER WOMAN Movie Review
THE OTHER WOMAN was adapted from the novel “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” by Ayelet Waldman. This fact is worth mentioning up front, because in any film adaptation of a novel inevitably there will have to be decisions made about what to include and what to cut, the scope of a novel usually being much greater than can be covered on film in two hours (or in this case a tidy 102 minutes).
When cutting and changing big chunks of a book to fit it to the big screen, the story being told is reshaped, sometimes with a scalpel and in other ways with a hammer. The challenge to a person like writer/director Don Roos (“The Opposite of Sex,” “Bounce,” “Marley & Me”) is to maintain cohesion while remaking the story of the book into a movie that works. And so The Other Woman is having a bit of an identity crisis.
The story centers on Emilia (Natlie Portman) — an oddly petulant Harvard-educated attorney who often comes off more like a selfish teenager — and the family she has stepped into the middle of: Emilia’s new husband, the recently-divorced Jack (Scott Cohen), his son William (played by 11-year-old Charlie Tahan), and Jack’s understandably bitter ex-wife Carolyn (Lisa Kudrow), who was still very much married to Jack when he and Emilia started banging each other on business trips.
We see this short, not-too-sweet evolution from colleague to spouse in an extended 15-minute flashback sequence that occurs in the film after we’ve met and presumably begun to like Emilia and Jack, and empathize with the fact that they’ve recently lost their newborn baby. Unfortunately, we already pretty much know how and why they’re together, and showing us the details of their first hotel room hookup only serves to underscore what scumbags they kind of are. No amount of cuteness on the part of the actors (or the obtrusively rom-com score) can erase the simple fact that these are basically awful people who tore a family apart. Cliché though it may be, it teaches us the value of showing the “current” spouse as an untenably horrible person before the infidelity occurs; in this case, the only early glimpse we have of Carolyn is of a lovely doctor/wife hostessing a party for her husband, at whom Emilia is already making smoky, bedroom eyes.
The bulk of the story revolves around the effect of the baby’s death on Emilia and Jack’s fledgling marriage (including a late-inning emotional bombshell for which the phrase “spoiler alert” was invented) and the strained relationship between Emilia and young, sensitive William (poor kid). Note, very little time spent on how Emilia is exactly the “home wrecker” that Carolyn and the other “first wives” at William’s school believe her to be.
The film is billed as dramedy. It’s heavy on the drama, but could have used a few more things to laugh at to fit this designation. And then there’s that title change, surely a marketing ploy to get potential viewers thinking less about love being ambiguously difficult or “impossible,” and more about a salacious tryst involving the gorgeous Portman. It’s like 2004’s mesmerizing Closer, plus kids (and minus the gravitas and nuance of Clive Owen).
Although most of the time the cast comes off fine, there are some early scenes where Roos didn’t quite have a firm grip on the reins. Portman’s performance suffers most, as much from lack of character development (we learn far too late in the story the details of her own father’s infidelity to her mother) as Roos’s loose hand. Initial scenes would peg her attitude not as that of a relatively young Ivy-league lawyer but more like a somewhat trashy high school dropout. Emilia is almost completely lacking in self-awareness, which in turn casts serious doubt on Jack for choosing this immature person to help him raise his somewhat troubled young son. Only later when it’s terribly convenient do we glimpse Carolyn’s mean streak, but still it’s hard not to fall into her corner considering what these other two have wrought. If not for a powerful, pseudo fence-mending scene near the end, where Portman and Kudrow really bring it, it would be easy to walk out of the theater without having been much moved by this film’s recurring loss of focus, borderline hypocrisy, and false-denouements.
The Other Woman opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Music Hall today, February 4th.