Judge Gordon Sullivan thought this was a Lost spinoff.
Love makes everything possible.
Some films come with a preloaded back story that makes a reviewer's job much easier. In the case of The Other Woman, it's really easy to slot the film into slim cultural moment when Black Swan was earning all its Oscar buzz. During the lead up to the ceremony, with Natalie Portman a definite favorite for a golden statue, some of her other projects got to see the light of day. One was No Strings Attached, a slightly raunchy (at least by Portman's standards) romantic comedy with leading heartthrob Ashton Kutcher. The other marked Portman's debut as producer, and sat on the shelf for over a year after its first showing at the Toronto International Film Festival. Unlike most of Portman's other work, The Other Woman is a straight-to-the-cheap-seats adult weepy that puts some good acting in an otherwise painful package.
Facts of the Case
In The Other Woman, Natalie Portman plays, quite literally, the other woman. She plays Emilia, the second wife of Jack (Scott Cohen, Love and Other Drugs), and must take the constant scorn of both the mothers at her stepson William's school, as well as the scorn of William's mother. If that weren't enough, Emilia lost her infant recently, and must learn to cope with that loss even as she comes to terms with being an authority figure for William.
There's a scene in the fourth season of Californication, where the actor who's going to play Hank Moody in an adaptation of his novel (which is largely about how he had sex with an underage woman) asks "Is there any value in her being 18 or 19?" When Hank replies no, because then she wouldn't be illegal, the actor responds with "Yeah, but I'm trying to make the character a little more likeable." It's a funny, ironic scene on a number of levels, but for our purposes it highlights one important fact about thespians: they want to play likeable characters. Even when they play villains, actors want to play a villain that will be liked. The number of fully rounded yet truly despicable characters in the history of cinema is small. I wouldn't add Natalie Portman's Emilia to the list, but it's impressive that she's willing to play a woman is (at least at the film's start) not terribly likeable or sympathetic.
Here endeth the praise for The Other Woman. Aside from the stellar acting (and not just from Portman; Lisa Kudrow deserves a shout out as well), there's little else to recommend. Much of the problem with the picture stems from the fact that it does feel true in many ways. Emilia acts like a real person would or could act in these situations. However, the film does very little to establish what's going on in Emilia's life before thrusting us into her behavior towards others. From the film's opening moments she seems bitter, both towards the other mothers at William's school and towards William himself. It's a realistic portrayal, but it makes Emilia unsympathetic from the beginning, and the hole is dug so deeply that there's little chance she'll recover from her early sarcastic treatment of William for many viewers.
Without that early identification with Emilia, viewers are left on the outside looking in. Sure a lot of sad stuff happens to Emilia, and her grief is justified, but that doesn't mean the film is successful in helping me share her pain. I only learned that this was an adaptation of a novel after I'd watched it for the first time, and I'm not terribly surprised. Given some access to Emilia's inner life would have gone a long way towards making her a character the audience could really understand. Without that, the film is left to hammer the audience over the head with straight-from-the-soaps dramatic twists and turn. In fact, the film is so filled with those kind of stereotypical elements that I'm surprised the use of voice to give us some of Emilia's pain directly wasn't used.
The Other Woman gets an appropriately slight Blu-ray release as well. The 2.35:1 AVC-encoded transfer looks good, but not great. Colors and grain rendition are generally strong, but fine detail isn't always. Part of that might be intentional softness to give the film a bit of that old fashioned "glow," but overall the image is serviceable. The audio is similarly okay. The 5.1 surround track is generally wasted on this dialogue-heavy film. Atmosphere is strong and dialogue is clear, but that's about it. The only extra is the film's trailer. That's a true shame, because despite my dislike the movie I would have liked to hear something about how it got made, the adaptation, and what it was like for Natalie Portman to get a bit of work behind the camera as producer. But no, just the film's trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I lied a bit up there, as I do have one more positive thing to say. The fact that they used a Flaming Lips song ("Do You Realize") over the opening was pretty cool, and raised my hopes for the film that followed. Sadly, The Other Woman doesn't have the kind of weirdness or naked emotion of a Flaming Lips song.
Those inclined to weep for little reason will probably enjoy The Other Woman. Sure it's a sad story, even if the film does little to bring the audience along with that sadness, and those who are looking for a film that will get the tears flowing will likely find what they're looking for in this film.
The Other Woman is a strange, distant kind of film. I think the audience will desperately want to sympathize with a mother who is coping with the loss of a baby, but the film does everything possible to make us not care. Not even a decent performance from Natalie Portman can rescue this film from its slight (and trite) message. Only the most committed of Natalie Portman fans should give this one a watch, but even that's more of a recommendation than the film deserves.
The Other Woman is guilty of not earning its emotional weight.
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