Blu-ray Review: The Other Woman

After playing the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and sitting on a shelf for a year, The Other Woman was picked up and put out in the wake of star Natalie Portman’s award-winning turn in Black Swan. The problem is, The Other Woman also came out after Rabbit Hole, a tender and surprisingly funny portrait of a couple coping with the loss of a child that managed to avoid the hollow hysterics that Woman often mistakes for gripping drama.

The film staggers its story for maximum discomfort -- we see Emilia (Portman) picking her stepson, William (Charlie Tahan), up from school, earning nothing but nasty looks from all the other mothers. We see William pester Emilia about selling off baby furniture that’s just sitting around the house until she snaps, and when Jack (Scott Cohen) -- her husband, his father -- gets wind of the incident, he tries to place the burden of the blame on Emilia. After all, his kid didn’t know any better, right? From there, we get a glimpse of how Emilia met Jack and carried on with him, winding up with both a baby, briefly, and the home-wrecking reputation that earns one nothing but nasty looks from all the other mothers at school.

“What, are you in the cliché Olympics?,” spouts a colleague at one point, and they have a point. Emilia’s every attempt to bond with William backfires, and if she doesn’t end up hearing it from Jack, she gets an earful from his ex-wife, Carolyne (Lisa Kudrow, in super-shrill form). And when Emilia gets the rare chance to feel good or at least unashamed, leave it to her mismanaged grief over their dead daughter to transform our hapless heroine into a shrew to rival Carolyne.

In adapting Ayelet Waldman’s novel, director Don Roos put down the poison pen that made The Opposite of Sex a bit of wicked fun and opts toward his more melodramatic Bounce-era tendencies. Save for that early-on flashback to the beginnings of Emilia and Jack’s clearly ill-advised affair, Woman is all aftermath, leaving everyone too damn pouty to make such fragile feelings of love, longing, and resentment resonate beyond simplistic shouting-match confrontations. Structurally speaking, Roos first establishes that no good deed of Emilia’s goes unpunished, that Emilia did indeed drive a family apart, and that Emilia continues to feel guilty for the fact that her new, ideal family unit didn’t last any longer than the three days that her baby was out of the womb, so maybe we should cut her some slack.

It’s too little, too late for our protagonist’s sake, although Portman deserves due credit for trying to rationalize Emilia’s consistently wrong-headed, short-sighted, if occasionally well-intended behavior. She’s in over her head as a mother, beyond her bounds as a colleague, and just generally out of her depth, so it’s little surprise that many scenes leave her face tear-streaked as the stubborn son, the exhausted husband, and the spiteful ex-wife each take their turns giving her a good kick in the emotional shins. By the time redemption rears its inevitable head, it hardly seems like any one of these affluent, embittered characters deserves another shoulder to cry on.

Steve Yedlin’s lensing is the warmest thing about The Other Woman -- to borrow a feeble attempt by Emilia to comfort William, “You look miserable, but not bad. That’s what I shoot for.” -- and the picture looks about as handsome as anyone could’ve possibly hoped. Alas, the only included extra feature is the film’s theatrical trailer.