The emotional beats are telegraphed a bit too obviously in Don Roos’ The Other Woman, an adaptation of Ayelet Waldman’s novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. The picture – about the burdens of being the second wife – ties itself into a neat Manhattan valentine dramedy bow, and it makes no great attempt to bypass the occasional thinly drawn character or overdone scenario.
Yet, there’s a low-key honesty at the heart of the film, manifested in the subtly developed relationship between protagonist Emilia (Natalie Portman) and her stepson William (Charlie Tahan). In a quiet way, spurred by Portman’s predictably likable, earthy performance, the picture espouses some smart and meaningful insights into the challenges of falling in love with the “wrong” man and joining a family in which one might not be the most natural fit.
Enhancing the film’s portrait of a woman trying to carve her own happiness out of a path beset with obstacles of the heart is an authentic tony Manhattan aura, sprinkled with references to elite private schools, class dichotomies between the Upper East Side and Westchester suburbs and little-known facts about Central Park. Roos brings a lived-in, warm spirit to what could have felt like a chilly Nanny Diaries milieu, with patient camerawork that alternately enhances the intimacy and loneliness of this challenging place in his characters’ lives.
Cliches abound, permeating the surface of the picture and periodically giving it the feel of a stock relationship drama American indie. Countless movies have been set within the same basic dramatic space, telling stories of tentative “surrogate” parent-child connections. The film’s other major subplot – Emilia’s lingering grief over the death of her baby girl – consists of emotional territory mined with more subtle strength in the recent Rabbit Hole, among countless other productions.
Still, the picture benefits from Portman’s dignified, empathetic presence. The actress humanizes and draws out the difficulties in being the much-hated, perceived homewrecker. She’s always been an open book as a performer, parlaying deep and complicated emotions into the way she carries her svelte frame and subtly contorts her striking face. That skill serves her well here, as she undermines the conventionally hated, villainous stigma normally associated with being the other woman.
Put simply, the likely soon-to-be Oscar winner for Black Swan makes you want to like the inherently unlikable Emilia. If The Other Woman doesn’t present quite the extensive acting challenge of Nina Sayers’ descent into madness, it offers an imposing burden that Portman adeptly overcomes.
Emilia is not your everyday one-dimensional younger woman, who stole husband Jack (Scott Cohen) from his first wife Carolyne (Lisa Kudrow). She fell in love, genuinely and passionately, at the wrong time and with the wrong person. In The Other Woman, the specificity of her role as a second wife is smartly, effectively rendered secondary to the joys and pains inherent in that universal experience.
The Upside: Natalie Portman is predictably great, and the movie is filled with some moving insights into love’s challenges.
The Downside: It’s also pretty cliched and packed with subplots that don’t quite work.
On the Side: Novelist Ayelet Waldman caused some controversy when in 2005 she acknowledged that she loved her husband, famed author Michael Chabon, more than her children.