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Movie Review, The Other Woman: Natalie Portman’s Latest, Straight Off the Shelf

by Caryn James
January 3, 2011 6:10 AM
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Long before Black Swan, Natalie Portman was making some daring choices. Her bravado as the stripper in Closer and her delicately-directed short for New York, I Love You would be enough to signal an adventurous career. And in The Other Woman she creates sympathy for a truly idiosyncratic character. Emilia was a pregnant mistress turned wife, then grieving mother when her infant died. You can feel a big “But ...” coming here. Don Roos’ misbegotten screenplay and muddled direction are so hopeless all you can do is wonder “Who are these people?”

You’re never sure what drives Emilia. When we meet her she is being irrationally harsh while picking up her young stepson from his Manhattan school, and we can assume she’s taking out her grief on him. But who gives ice cream to a lactose-intolerant child on the guess that his mother is imagining his condition? Even if she’s right, that’s crueler and more callous than Emilia is meant to be.

Her husband, Jack (Scott Cohen), is a weakling who was somehow willful enough to leave his wife. And the ex-wife, Carolyn (Lisa Kudrow), is such an over-the-top harridan she makes caricatures seem real. Here is a woman who blurts out her son’s failure to get into private schools, as an attack on his father, while the poor kid listens. He’s her son, doesn’t she know he can hear? Even as a portrait of self-absorbed grown-ups, The Other Woman is beyond believable.

It’s easy to see why the film languished after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009 under its original title, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. Latching into Portman’s awards-buzz moment, The Other Woman premiered on-demand on Saturday and will be released in theaters on Feb. 4th.

It’s harder to see how Roos, the clever writer/director of The Opposite of Sex, and the co-creator of Kudrow’s brilliantly witty web series Web Therapy, could have gone so wrong. There could be a clue in the film’s source, Ayelet Waldman’s novel, which reviews describe as having a dark-comic edge about its characters. That would at least explain what Roos might be trying for, and what the film, with its earnest and realistic direction, totally misses.

As for the not-so-burning but inevitable question of how this clunker might influence Portman’s Oscar chances? I’d guess not at all. Voters aren’t likely to count this teeny film as a big failure, and they’re even less likely to watch it. If they do watch, they’ll see a performance that reinforces Portman’s remarkable strength on screen. Emilia is both wrong-headed and touching, and she’s hiding a guilt-ridden secret that Portman handles with much more subtlety than this clumsy screenplay deserves.

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  • Stepmom | October 25, 2011 5:06 AMReply

    I am a second wife and I thought this was brilliant. I think Kurdrow's character is a bit exaggerated but it gets the point across by making you see how it could feel to be in Emilia's shoes. Families come in all shapes and forms these days. The role of a stepmother is complicated. She is easily the target of blame and hatred. Wanting a baby is a deep natural craving, and wanting a baby with a man who has already had a baby with another woman is complicated and there can be pain in there. When the bio mom fills her child's mind with hurtful things about you- it is complicated, hurtful and creates a greater uphill battle. Add in there the confusion/ complexity pain around Emilia's feelings about her own father and having that mirrored by her own husband and her life. This movie is very close to my life. It's about time that there's a movie that addresses woman's pain (a woman without a child of her own married to a man with children, with a hateful ex-wife, the complications of a step child, and the complications of our own parents). Well done Roos.

  • Ellen | January 12, 2011 1:45 AMReply

    Couldn't decide about this movie, the sadness was almost unbearable at times (although be assured it ends upbeat). I'm not usually a fan of N Portman, not since Beautiful Girls anyway but she totally redeemed this movie, home wrecker aside, we are all human anyway.

  • Jennifer | January 8, 2011 10:46 AMReply

    Perhaps not the greatest film but I thoroughly enjoyed and connected with Portman's performance and characterization of Emelia...It made the movie worth watching. I empathized with every nuance of her bitchy and self-centered grief. The young son, William was totally believable in his geeky way...there are really more children like him than we care to acknowledge.
    Lisa Kudrow...well she was just plain weird....strange beyond the control aspect of her character. I totally understood her anger but it played out as simply bizarre.
    Homewrecker???...sometimes yes and sometimes no.

  • teresa | January 5, 2011 2:48 AMReply

    a homewrecker is a homewrecker - regardless of the condition of taking advantage of a difficult time in a marriage...

  • Unfredi | January 4, 2011 10:35 AMReply

    Justifications are always based on one's own opinions and experiences, which may or may not be true when you think of how "a home is already wrecked" before another woman comes along. Hmmm....

  • Caryn James | January 4, 2011 4:14 AMReply

    An intriguing aspect of the film is that Emilia is NOT seen as "a home wrecker," even though she pursues Jack. His marriage was horrible. That issue might have been a fascinating, provocative element if the film had been better.

  • fredi | January 4, 2011 1:35 AMReply

    Why is it so hard to believe that people like Kudrow's ex wife character actually EXIST in real life? I am a second wife and my husband's ex behaves the same way and worse. She also believes I was his mistress, which is untrue. ( We met three years after his divorce was finalised and yet she has revised history and will lie about this to anyone who will listen.) I am not alone either, there are many women like me out there dealing with whackjob exs. And just in case you didn't know, there's no such thing as a homewrecker. The home is usually already wrecked by the time another woman comes along.

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