Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 16, 2011)
Though finished in 2009, The Other Woman didn’t get a release until 2011 – not until after lead actor Natalie Portman received her peak level of fame and prominence via her Oscar-winning performance in 2010’s Black Swan. Coincidence? Kinda doubt it – the Blu-ray release of Woman seems designed to capitalize on Portman’s current popularity.
Whether or not Woman deserved more exposure remains to be seen. Based on Ayelet Waldman’s novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, the film follows Emilia Greenleaf (Portman), a young law school grad who goes to work for the firm of Friedman Taft. She develops a massive crush on Jack Woolf (Scott Cohen), a partner there.
This eventually develops into a romance, and when Emilia gets pregnant, Jack leaves his wife and marries her. Emilia needs to bond with her stepson William (Charlie Tahan), a factor exacerbated by the relentless negativity Jack’s bitter ex-wife Carolyne (Lisa Kudrow) aims her way.
Not long after birth, Emilia and Jack’s daughter Isabel dies, something else that rocks the relationship. Much of the film finds the family some unspecified time after that, and the impact of Isabel’s death continues to impact on them. We follow their attempts to get past their loss, with an emphasis on Emilia’s relationship with William.
As I mentioned when I reviewed Black Swan, I thought Portman offered a pretty terrible performance in that film. In fact, I felt she was so bad that I doubted her ability to act. It’s not her fault that her turn in Swan got so much praise, but she was the one who put out the awful work in the first place.
Portman’s performance in Other Woman manages to restore my belief that she has talent. She offers more than credible work as Emilia; she delivers a turn that manages to be surprisingly three-dimensional and real despite a script that can’t figure out which way to take the character.
Indeed, Portman stands as the best thing about Other Woman, a movie that veers toward general triteness – or at least narrative uncertainty. The film’s main theme tends toward the Emilia/William relationship, and those are indeed its best parts. As an actor, Tahan can be a bit irritating, but in a good way; largely due to his mother’s overcontrolling nature, he’s a little wussy boy, and Tahan makes his annoying traits… well, maybe not totally realistic, but at least appropriate for the role.
I realize that a movie about a difficult relationship between stepmother and child isn’t exactly unique, but it can be fertile ground, and Other Woman usually explores it well. It helps that Portman doesn’t attempt to make Emilia a particularly sympathetic character. Given Williams’ prissiness, the movie could’ve made their troubled relationship one-sided and turned Emilia into a long-suffering victim, but as depicted here, she’s often as big a problem as the kid. She displays frequent immaturity and doesn’t become the expected martyr.
When Other Woman focuses on other areas, though, it tends to falter. The subplot about continuing Isabel-related grief feels more like a soap opera distraction than an organic offshoot. It should probably create more tension between Emilia and William, but outside of obvious ways – represented by William’s unconscious insensitivity about the baby’s death – that doesn’t happen. Rather than get the sense that Emilia resents William because he represents the child she lost, she just resents him because he’s kind of obnoxious. Perhaps the original novel explored the Isabel issue better, but as depicted in the film, the whole subject could’ve been omitted and the story would’ve worked just as well.
Actually, virtually all the other plot lines – which include elements about the broken marriage between Emilia’s parents as well as the miscarriage suffered by one of Emilia’s friends – could have gotten the boot. The film would work fine if it focused on William and Emilia and used his parents as secondary elements.
Perhaps I should say the film could have worked fine that way, as the portrayal of Jack and Carolyne leaves me less certain. Jack is about as generic a character as can be; he’s there as a plot notion more than as a person, and he makes virtually no impact on the proceedings. Nothing against Cohen, but the character’s such a non-entity that I suspect they could’ve cast an inanimate carbon rod and the result would’ve been the same.
That’s not the case for Carolyne, though, as Kudrow’s poor performance actively harms the role. As a comedic performer, Kudrow’s good, but as I’ve noted in other reviews, she can’t play real people. She can do silly cartoons but when asked to portray actual human beings, she flops.
As Carolyne, Kudrow feels like a total stereotype of the bitter wronged woman. She’s all snotty declarations and raised eyebrows without anything more substantial to give the role personality. As with the Jack role, I blame some of this on the script; it doesn’t try hard to make Carolyne a more three-dimensional role. Nonetheless, Kudrow’s performance robs the part of any potential humanity. She’s comic relief in a movie that doesn’t want it.
Another reason to lose the various subplots: some of them make no sense. We see that Emilia remains tremendously mad at her dad for cheating on her mom – and yet as depicted here, she’s a vixen who sets her sights on stealing a married man from his wife and kid!
I realize that life’s not always neat ‘n’ tidy and that hypocrisy abounds, but as depicted in the movie, this thread makes no sense. It really ignores the nature of Jack’s adultery and makes Emilia look like a boob. Again, perhaps the book explored this area in a more satisfying way, but the movie can’t do much with the subject.
Ultimately, this ends up as Portman’s film to carry, and to my moderate surprise, she does so well. Even with its plot problems and script issues, Portman delivers a satisfying take on a complicated character. When given the right material, she shines.