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.