Is ‘The Other Woman’ Competing in the Cliché Olympics?

The opening sequence of The Other Woman is immediately gripping: Photos depicting parents welcoming a new baby cross-dissolve from one to the next as The Flaming Lips’ mournful tune “Do You Realize?” plays under. As the sequence fades into the present, it’s painfully clear the baby character is no longer alive. This stunning opening appears a prelude to something we’ve never seen before. It doesn’t take long, however, until The Other Woman spirals into everything we’ve seen before.

The Other Woman was written and directed by Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex, Happy Endings) and is based on the novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman. In The Other Woman, Oscar-winner Natalie Portman plays Emilia, a young Harvard Law graduate who falls for Jack (Scott Cohen), a married, high-profile New York lawyer. When Emilia becomes pregnant with Jack’s child, Jack divorces his wife Carolyn (Lisa Kudrow) to marry Emilia. Jack and Carolyn share custody of their son, William (Charlie Tahan), and Emilia takes on the role of William’s stepmother. When Jack and Emilia’s baby dies three days after being born, Emilia is left questioning her role within the family dynamic.

The story opens in medias res, but a flashback supplies the history of Emilia and Jack’s relationship. During the flashback, Emilia’s friend Simon (Anthony Rapp) responds to something trite Emilia says by asking, “Are you competing in the cliché Olympics?” Unfortunately, this question seems to apply to nearly every element of the story.

The clichés begin with Emilia and Jack’s meet cute in the office. After a period of exchanging furtive glances, Jack and Emilia finally express their sublimated love during – you guessed it – a business trip. And an unplanned pregnancy provides convenient motivation for Jack’s hasty divorce and subsequent marriage to Emilia.

Emilia is, of course, looked upon with silent scorn by the other parents at William’s school who see her as a “home wrecker”. Predictably, William becomes an unwitting pawn in the exes’ game of one-upmanship. And true to form, the William character is socially awkward yet possesses precocious insight — just like child characters Elliot in E.T., Ray in Jerry Maguire, Cole in The Sixth Sense, or Manny on ABC TV’s Modern Family.

Even the film’s title, The Other Woman, is a hackneyed term (the source novel’s title was once a working title for the film; it may have been more intriguing). And the character’s names? The young, impressionable Emilia’s surname is Greenleaf; the prowling male Jack’s surname is, of course, Wolf.

Beyond its reliance on tried-and-tested formulae, the script itself has its own flaws. Despite instances of snappy writing, other scenes contain dialogue that is predictable or uninteresting (an exchange among Jack, Emilia and William in the back of a limousine is particularly stilted). Attempts at dramatic irony fall flat due to convention; for example, Emilia shows contempt for those whose own peccadilloes are similar to her own. And a scene where Portman’s Emilia disses Harvard to William feels absurd, given that Portman herself is a Harvard alumna and the line seems to break the fourth wall.

All this said, the actors’ performances elevate the content. Portman displays her Oscar-worthy capabilities with the depth and convincing emotion she lends her character, making the most of an uneven script with her excellent range. Charlie Tahan (I Am Legend, Charlie St. Cloud) infuses the role of William with introspective and enigmatic qualities that give the character great credibility. And even though Lisa Kudrow’s screen-time is limited, her portrayal of the spurned wife, Carolyn, is commanding. Later in the film, Kudrow provides a simple gesture as her character exits a scene; this gesture gives Kudrow’s character a richness and complexity that stirs the imagination.

The film’s soundtrack is beguiling, as it contains the aforementioned Flaming Lips’ track as well as music by Adele and by Belle and Sebastian. The sole extra on the DVD is the film’s trailer, a linear summary of the story, which is probably best to watch after viewing The Other Woman in its entirety.

Roos, who has explored themes of love, choices, happenstance and unintended consequences in his previous films, continues that exploration in The Other Woman. Although The Other Woman has the potential to be socially relevant given today’s blended families, it doesn’t present anything new. The Kids Are All Right ventured more boldly into that territory, and with more thought-provoking results.

Ultimately, The Other Woman feels safe and banal, like a Sunday-evening TV movie. The performances are strong, but the ideas are well worn.

RATING 5 / 10