The third phase in Natalie Portman’s four-part assault on American theaters (Your Highness follows this April), The Other Woman feels like the prestige cog in this set, its portrait of marital difficulties pitched toward big disclosures and emotional dividends. Yet where Black Swan exploited its upwardly mobile female protagonist to add class to its craziness, and No Strings Attached did the same for cheap laughs, Don Roos’s film takes a more measured approach. It might even make for an efficient character study, were it not busy contending with a bunch of oversized plot developments.
With its overlapping infidelities and bright, anxious characters, The Other Woman at times recalls peak-era Updike or Roth, the perspective flipped to the female side of the equation. Emilia Greenleaf (Portman) seems created with an eye toward the dominant stereotypes of that era, a subordinate who first becomes her older boss’s lover, then is called in as a replacement for his flagging first marriage. This results in an awkward arrangement, with Emilia forced to assume surrogate mother duties over her new husband’s young son.
Based on a novel by Ayelet Waldman, the film makes the most of its literary pedigree, creating sharply drawn characters rippling with fears and faults. But it also suffers in this sense, mostly from the vagaries of packing in an entire novel’s worth of action into two hours. This results in too much bluster and frenzy in the film’s second half, when it should be cementing the relationships it developed in the first. A more confident work might have cut the story short at an approachable point, dropping the high drama and pop psychology. Instead it extends its characters beyond the limits of their believability, then scales them down again for a low-key ending, trying to sneak back into the small-movie mold it had abandoned in search of a climax.
This isn’t to say the film doesn’t develop an organic basis for its action. The screenplay is careful in this aspect, allowing the characters, who exist as interesting, believable people, to largely dictate the story. Yet no amount of buildup is going to make the climactic revelation of an Elektra complex, or the employment of a baby’s death as a narrative device, seem anything but glib.
As good as it is at times, The Other Woman never nears greatness; it lacks the mettle and focus to push beyond well-groomed melodrama. As concerned as it remains with the problem experienced by women, it fails to address what might be the greatest frustration besetting Emilia, a Harvard grad and law associate reduced to babysitting an eight-year-old. Her frustration with this circumstance seems to find a voice in her combative relationship with the young William (Charlie Tahan), a shrinking violet who corrects adults’ grammar and thrives on tofu. But this conflict is bundled into a bigger one, an inquiry on Emilia’s supposed immaturity that spirits us toward the big finale. Scenes of the two vying for the father’s approval, seeming more like dueling siblings than mother and son, have potential, especially for further examination of the inherent imbalance of these characters’ relationships. Instead they serve as fodder for an overdriven plot, justification for turbulent developments that distract from the compelling people underneath.