When 'The Other Woman' Is The One You Like
Had Black Swan not screeched its way to an undeserved Oscar nomination, we might never have seen The Other Woman, Natalie Portman's 2009 performance as a second wife haunted by the loss of a newborn and the weight of a terrible secret. That would have been a shame; if your limit on bereavement movies is only one per annum, skip the overpraised Rabbit Hole and see this one instead.
Based on the 2006 novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman, this extended-family drama unfolds among upper-crust Manhattanites, a world where safety schools are as reviled as junk food. Portman plays Emilia, a Harvard-educated lawyer who works (for about five minutes) at a white-shoe firm before bedding her married boss, Jack (Scott Cohen). Within another five minutes, she's pregnant, and Jack's star-gynecologist wife, Carolyn (a magnificently venomous Lisa Kudrow) has been bounced aside.
We learn all this in flashback; when the film opens, Emilia and Jack are married, the baby is dead and Jack's 8-year-old son, William (a terrific Charlie Tahan) is acting out. Ostracized by the other mothers at William's school, loathed and harassed by Carolyn and isolated by her own suffering, Emilia is snippy with her high-maintenance stepson and withdrawn from Jack. She's not at all likable, but Portman — whose vulnerable, secretive style always seems on the verge of petulance — pulls us to her side. However cold and impatient, Emilia gets to us, thanks to Portman's beautifully balanced performance.
This is crucial, because there are times when The Other Woman skids uncomfortably close to Lifetime-approved weepie territory. A little precious (and more than a little manipulative), the film nevertheless surmounts these difficulties with a director (Don Roos, of 1998's The Opposite of Sex) who understands the acidic side of love and a supporting cast that's nothing short of superb. As Jack, wearily trying to mediate between two wounded women, Cohen evinces a David Strathairn-type decency that grounds the film's more extreme emotions. And Kudrow, working with dialogue that's often downright hateful, manages to show the hurt beneath the shrillness.
Everybody hurts here, but Roos is particularly sensitive to the boy in the middle, caught between a controlling mother and an insecure stepmother. Precisely tuned to the way children can become weapons in a battle between wives — Emilia delights in flouting Carolyn's rules, however hazardous that may be to William — the film grapples with the strain of blended families in a way that feels authentically messy. And by making Emilia and William's rocky relationship the fulcrum of the story, Roos creates room for a gentle humor that counters the overall bleakness. William may be a pill, but Emilia has no way of knowing that he will also be her savior. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.