The Other Woman portrays strong, conflicted women, delivers, falters, succumbs to lukewarm.
Writer-director Don Roos’ slow boil drama The Other Woman makes a strong case for the attractiveness of flawed relationships, yet the action falls short of titillating and the director makes a mess of melodrama. The story feels incomplete, undone and limited by a lack of emotional complexity that weighs otherwise effective performances. I would have enjoyed seeing this film in more capable hands; I can almost image what Wong Kar-Wai might have done with the simmering mood of indifferent mothers and sons, the brilliance of layered, nearly touching opposites pushed into dark room corners and rooftop endless sunsets. Pedro Almodovar would have at least made the personalities ring true, the perspectives not so much different but silvery-thin and distinct moments caught in glances, in the nervous and entwined fingers of a child caught between feuding mothers, the inept husband longing for the other woman until he finds her in his bed and can’t make out what to do with her. That’s where the potency of this film lives and breathes; it’s a shame Roos’ never even entered the room.
The Other Woman is most notable for Natalie Portman and is worthy viewing for her work alone. Lisa Kudrow is noticeable, though shallow, one-dimensional, the single setting on an emotional dial stuck on angry; not even pissed off. It is Portman’s understated glances that work best at scraping away the most dead skin from tired hands, the sort of resolve earned from living that fuels the portrait of the downward spiral of a young woman thrust into the maelstrom of family matters without ever really coming to terms with the role. It’s painfully almost there. She does give us inviting, charisma, vulnerable – the perfect heroine poised, like we sometimes are, as targets and lovers for the burden and tiny rewards from children and men. Kudrow plays a decent enough foe, even when her relentless assaults feel overdone and absurd. She is inappropriate if not mechanical. Her performance is reminiscent of Julian Moore in that it often doesn’t entirely make sense, the vitriol so coarse we can never fully connect with the character in a meaningful way – it just always feels like the actor playing the part of the result rather than choking on the air in the story. The Other Woman might be most interesting in these heated exchanges if not the quiet; you’ll have to make up your mind if story can live under such circumstances.
The film charts the course of a young Harvard law school graduate, Emilia Greenleaf (Natalie Portman) whose infatuation with her older, married boss Jack (Scott Cohen) sets in motion a series of events that have far-reaching, catastrophic consequences. Their affair kicks off an avalanche, a slow mountain slide that simultaneously begins their life together, complicates Jack’s relationship with his son, and dissolves his marriage with his first wife, Carolyn (Lisa Kudrow). Carolyn, whose singular distaste and disappointment with her life manifests in bitter, biting confrontation with Emilia. She takes the upper hand and poisons William against Emilia and in the ensuing months that follow, Emilie loses her baby and deeply damages her marriage with Jack. Things crumble soon thereafter as Emilie slips further and further into depression and her isolation is underscored by rocky relationships with William and her father. After all that progress, what ultimately slows the avalanche to a near crawl is the sluggish, somewhat lackadaisical plot where the characters meander, rooted by indecision or worse – the uncertainty of the director
Roos’ describes this story as an examination of a young woman’s relationship with her stepson and the baggage, frequently misplaced that comes with marriages and divorces. That might work from a distance where the story gathers momentum in our imagining of it, but the trajectory is off and we lose sight of the goal as though rockets in this world don’t run on the same stuff as ours, frequently unidirectional, levied at the wrong targets. The problem with peripheral warfare is the absence of blood, the failure at penetrating deep-seated passion; we feel too far away to care, too close to feel what happens to them because we’ve seen this airy stuff too many times on bad television situation drama. The result is unrequited relationships in a film that wants female empowerment through ownership of emotions, however flawed and in disrepair, yet delivers characters abandoned from knowing what they lived through or ever benefiting from having lived it.
The closest we come to success in this film is in momentary snapshot performances, in the possibility of a Ménage à trois with truth, passion, and ambition. It’s too bad we’re kept at a distance, voyeuristic verisimilitude is no substitute for the real thing.