The Other Woman


 

The Other Woman

Lisa Kudrow teaches the art of the fake smile.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Natalie Portman, Scott Cohen, Lisa Kudrow, Charlie Tahan, Lauren Ambrose, Michael Cristofer, Debra Monk, Mona Lerche, Anthony Rapp, Kendra Kassebaum, Elizabeth Marvel, Mary Joy, Maria Dizzia, Ira Hawkins. Directed by Don Roos

 

By its nature marital infidelity is a terrible and unforgivable thing. This is true of the married party who cheats on their partner but it is also true of the one they’re cheating with, especially when they know full well that they’re having an affair with a married person.

Emilia Greenleaf (Portman) is a Harvard grad who works in the law office of Jack (Cohen), a married partner in the firm. She knows of his marital status but she thinks he’s cute and attractive and that attraction only grows the longer she works there. One thing leads to another and soon the two are carrying on an affair.

When Emilia gets pregnant, Jack decides that he would rather be with her than with Carolyn (Kudrow), the driven but successful obstetrician. The two divorce with Jack unaccountably given custody of William (Tahan), their young son.

The baby is delivered and it’s a girl. A few days after coming home, tragically, the baby dies of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) leaving her parents disconsolate. Emilia particularly has a hard time dealing with the baby’s death, growing more distant and irritable. Her relationship with William has become a war, each side practicing little cruelties upon the other (she encourages the lactose-intolerant William to eat an ice cream sundae; he proposes she sell all the infant furniture and clothes on eBay). Carolyn in the meantime has instituted proceedings to take back custody of William. She has become shrewish and confrontational. Emilia’s parents (Cristofer and Monk), long-divorced after her father cheated on her mother as a result of a sex addiction, are trying to patch things up although Emilia has been unable to forgive him for abandoning her.

Emilia’s life is falling apart and so is she. Everything she touches seems to turn to ash; her close friend Mindy (Ambrose) and Simon (Rapp) are slowly being alienated and her marriage is close to over. Could this be karma finally catching up with the other woman?

Portman is showcased here in this film by veteran indie director Roos (The Opposite of Sex), based on the book Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman. This is a bit different than we’re used to from Roos who specializes in clever and light relationship comedies. The cinematography is strong here which makes for beautiful pictures telling a bleak story. That story is told mostly in flashback which requires a deft hand. It’s not a new method of storytelling but it is often botched, leaving the viewers confused and frustrated. That doesn’t happen here.

Portman is a gifted actress and she makes good use of her talents here. Emilia is far from being a saint – after all, she did initiate a relationship with a man that was already taken. She also shows a streak of arrogance and insensitivity, as well as a bit of temperamental cruelty that particularly surfaces after the baby’s death. This isn’t a character that invites audience identification and yet we wind up doing just that; Emilia’s deeds aren’t likable but Portman makes Emilia herself so.

Kudrow, who has appeared in several of Roos’ films, is usually a bit of a charming ditz in most of her roles but here she’s capable, a little cold and VERY pissed off. She’s justifiably angry too but as in the case of a fairly significant percentage of women whose husbands left them for the women they cheated with, saves her vitriol for the woman and not so much for her husband. One thinks Carolyn blames the entire affair on Emilia, even though it takes two to tango and Jack is quite the willing dance partner.

In fact, Cohen’s Jack seems a likable fellow and we don’t get any sense of why he felt compelled to cheat on his wife other than that the woman coming onto him is Natalie Portman, one of the most beautiful and desirable women in Hollywood today. The movie never really examines too closely Jack’s culpability which I suppose is fitting since the title is The Other Woman, not The Cheating Husband.

I guess in a way the subject matter is a bit of a soap opera by nature, but it certainly feels as such in execution. There are some pretty adult subjects here, given the infidelity and the baby’s death and subsequent grieving of the mother but the handling is a bit heavy-handed whereas a more sensitive touch would have been appreciated.

This can be recommended for the performances of the lead women, although Tahan also turns in a good job. His byplay with Portman feels authentic and the strain between them is palpable. Those aspects of the movie work. What doesn’t is the apparent blameless nature of the man and the daytime drama approach of the screenplay, but it’s still worth seeing thanks to Portman and Kudrow.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Kudrow and Portman.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat soap opera-esque. Sensitive subject matter handled with an iron fist.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is fairly adult with a good deal of sexual content and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shelved for nearly two years during which time Portman won her Best Actress Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $452,191 on an unreported production budget. The movie might have broken even but I suspect that’s quite unlikely.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stepmom

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Young Goethe in Love (Goethe!)


Young Goethe in Love

Note to Twilight fans - these aren't vampires! They just SHOULD be!

(2010) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Alexander Fehling, Miriam Stein, Moritz Bleibtreu, Volker Bruch, Burghart Klausner, Henry Hubchen, Hans-Michael Rehberg, Anna Botcher, Stefan Haschke, Xavier Hutter, Oscar Weidner, Guido Lambrecht, Vitus Wieser. Directed by Philipp Stolzl

 

Writers have a tendency to use their own lives for inspiration. Their experiences become kind of a template on which their best works are based. Some of the best templates are those based on terrible experiences.

Johann Goethe (Fehling) – with an “oe” – is a writer, or he wants to be. His poetry and drama up to that point hadn’t been well-received. His father (Hubchen) wants him to be a lawyer but Goethe is a bit too flighty for that. He fails the law exams, doing a mocking little dance afterwards and writing the words “kiss my ass” in the snow. Dear old dad sends his unruly son from the big city lights of Frankfurt for the country seat that is Wetzlar where his father has enough pull to get him work as a clerk for the local prosecutor Johann Christian Kestler (Bleibtreu).

Kestler is a bit of a stickler and one of his junior clerks, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem (Bruch) – a terrible stammerer and a somewhat shy nebbish to boot – is given Goethe to take under his wing. The two become fast friends and Jerusalem takes Goethe to a dance, where Goethe – urban sophisticate that he was – is terribly bored.

That is, until he meets Charlotte Buff (Stein), a plain-spoken country girl with a voice like an angel and a face to match. He becomes completely smitten with her. Riding off into the country, he meets her again and spends an afternoon baking bread, playing with her many younger siblings and playing the clavichord. It becomes plain that she has feelings for him as well.

Jerusalem has become enamored of a married woman and is entertaining thoughts of running away with her once she leaves her husband. Even Kestler, Goethe’s boss, has found someone and enlists Goethe’s help in wooing her. Goethe, happily in love, is only too pleased to help someone else find what he has found. Goethe is as blissful as a man can be.

That’s usually when the floor disappears from beneath your feet and thus it is with Goethe. Jerusalem’s mistress has decided to stay with her husband and it turns out that the object of Kestler’s affection is Charlotte, who because of her family’s dire financial situation has agreed to become engaged to Kestler who is far more prosperous than Goethe. A distraught Jerusalem commits suicide in front of Goethe and now he is under arrest for illegally dueling. Will he survive to write Faust?

Of course he will. The trouble with biographical movies is that you know that the threats of suicide are mainly bluster and won’t be acted upon, at least not successfully. The events here correspond to the events that Goethe used to base his first great novel on, The Sorrows of Young Werther which combined all of the main characters into a love triangle. It was such a sensation that it spawned copycat suicides among the lovelorn.

The period is well-depicted here, from the brutality of Teutonic justice to the wide disparity between wealth and poverty. The cast here is solid and bring life to long-dead figures of history. Fehling’s Goethe is mischievous, somewhat anti-authoritative and full of piss and vinegar. I will admit this is a bit at odds with the Goethe that I knew, a stolid conservative who very much seemed to reject the tenets of following one’s heart in favor of trusting one’s logic. Still, even Goethe had to be young once.

Stein is a real beauty and it’s easy to see why Goethe would fall so hard for her Lotte. Stein and Fehling make an appealing couple and turn this into one of the most appealing onscreen literary romances since Shakespeare in Love. The similarity in the titles of the movies isn’t necessarily coincidental.

I am to understand that certain liberties have been taken with historical accuracy but that is to be expected – after all, if you want to learn something, there’s always the Discovery Channel – or wonder of wonders, actually reading a book. The Twilight set will appreciate the hopeless nature of the love between Goethe and Charlotte even if they have not a clue who Goethe is or his significance in literature – it is not an unmerited claim to state that without Goethe, it is unlikely Twilight would have come to pass.

The movie has a goodly amount of romance, a bit of intrigue and a quiet sense of fun. There is humor, drama and even a bit of sex. It’s entertaining and while some might grumble about subtitles, there is a certain sense of humor here that is appealing. It’s a wonderful movie well worth seeking out in your local art house or failing that, on home video when it is released in that medium next spring.

REASONS TO GO: Most Americans are unfamiliar with Goethe, his work and his life so it’s a good way to find out more about one of the world’s great literary figures.

REASONS TO STAY: Subtitles are a hassle for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a couple of disturbing images and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bleibtreu provided the voice for Flynn Rider in the German version of Tangled.

HOME OR THEATER: The beautiful German countryside deserves to be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Behind the Burly Q