REVIEW: Natalie Portman Strikes Out As The Other Woman
Natalie Portman's approach to acting demands that she wears her heart on her sleeve so explicitly, the heart becomes the whole garment -- a crimson chemise with streaks of blue veins running across it. So writer-director Don Roos casting her in his new film, The Other Woman, sounds subversive, given that his career includes The Opposite of Sex and other mocking takes on melodrama; he's Pedro Almodovar with low blood pressure. You might suppose Roos would find a way to comment on her moist-eyed vivacity. (You'd be hard-pressed to find another actress with such natural camera rapport who still commits so fervently; she makes the contestants on American Idol seem like Dick Cheney.)
As Emilia, a mother distraught over the death of her infant daughter, Portman wins this battle of wills. Which is to say, The Other Woman suffers as a result. Rather than find a way to turn self-absorption into a comic style, Portman chose to bold-italicize a line from the opening inner monologue of the source material, Ayelet Waldman's novel, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (the film's original title): "Don't they realize that obsessive self-pity is an all-consuming activity that leaves no room for conversation?" Waldman's protagonists attempting distance at a brisk walk -- and the toll that takes -- is probably what attracted Roos to the material; his is the West Coast version -- irony from a moving car, or practiced in homes large enough to have their own zoning ordinances.
Emilia's well-informed, willful childishness of the book becomes Portman's inexhaustible ability to perch on the verge on tears, and then plummets over the verge. Emilia is, after all, the other woman. Her husband, John, (Scott Cohen) left his wife (played by Lisa Kudrow) for her, and her stepson William (Charlie Tahan) doesn't have much tolerance for Emilia -- she's the other woman for him, too. But reducing William from deuteragonist to one of the supporting characters worn down by Emilia's state shifts the balance horribly. The on-the-nose, audience tested feel of the film's current title also sums up the way the movie plays; what nuance it had went out the window with the original name.
Roos crams so much activity into Woman that it was probably simpler for the movie to lay at one note, and Portman could've appeared an obvious choice for the lead since it could be the back of her head on the cover of the novel. (It could also have been Jennifer Lopez, who backed out before production began.) Roos works from the edge of a precipice as well, distending the melodrama in his films until it finally tumbles in subtle, observant satire; Kudrow, who etches each pause in acid, was born to speak his dialogue. He uses the hapless men onscreen staring at the women as stand-ins for the lugs dragged along with their women to still through such movies. In Woman, they're just optional equipment -- even William is an interchangeable piece, like leather or hand-stitched vinyl.
The Other Woman now gives Portman three films in current release -- though it sat in the holding tank since 2009 -- and her boundless energy explains why she's a star. She's not capable of the laissez faire that's Roos' stock in trade.