“I hate it when the heroine’s beautiful but she can’t get a date,” complains Emilia Greenleaf (Natalie Portman) as she walks out of a romantic movie in The Other Woman (IFC Films), written and directed by Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex) from a novel by Ayelet Waldman. Emilia might as well be critiquing Portman’s last release, No Strings Attached, which cast the angel-faced actress as an uptight doctor closed off to the possibility of true love. The Other Woman—which has been sitting on a shelf awaiting distribution since 2009, and is being hastily trotted out by IFC to ride the wave of Portman’s Oscar publicity—doesn’t ask us to buy Portman as a dateless schlub. It makes an even more unlikely demand of its audience: that we believe she’s complex and often unlikable.
Emilia is the second wife of a much older, well-off Manhattan lawyer, Jack (Scott Cohen). Shortly before the movie begins—though we’re never told exactly how much time has elapsed—the couple loses their first child, a baby girl, at the age of 3 days. Emilia is adrift, reluctant to move on with her life, and visibly uninterested in connecting with Jack’s 8-year-old son, William (a talented young actor named Charlie Tahan). * To be sure, William is a neurasthenic little twit, but you can hardly blame him with a mother like Carolyne (Lisa Kudrow), a bitter, overprotective social climber who obsesses over getting her son into the right private school. Emilia struggles to baby-sit William one day a week, deal with the never-used baby gear that still clutters her apartment, and save her strained marriage. As Carolyne never hesitates to remind her, she’s doing a pretty poor job at all of it.
Though The Other Woman hits its share of predictable, movie-of-the-week emotional notes, this film nonetheless could have provided a meaty role for Portman. Emilia is not only a bereaved and suffering mother; she’s something of a bitch, prone to diminishing the pain of others and magnifying her own. She’s also a responsibility-shirker with a knack for apologizing in the passive voice: “My mistakes have happened,” she tells William after blowing up at him during a family event. A heroine with this degree of ambiguity is unusual in a drama about maternal grief, and while Portman excels at looking vaguely stricken (an expression she maintained for almost the whole of Black Swan), her stabs at other affective states—dark humor, self-pitying rage—meet with less success. A woman grappling with the cosmic injustice of her infant’s sudden death should not sulk as if she just missed a sample sale at Barneys.
In Portman’s defense, Roos’ script also wavers on who Emilia is or how we should feel about her. One minute we’re rooting for this young woman to win over her recalcitrant stepson; the next, we’re shocked at her casual cruelty toward him. In a flashback, we watch her break up a marriage with calculating coyness; back in the present day, we’re asked to see her as a victim of the ex-wife’s outlandish malice. (Kudrow’s status-hungry character is an overdrawn comic grotesque, until one late, unexpected scene when we get a glimpse of her humanity.) It would take an exceptional actress to make sense of this mishmash, and Natalie Portman—I’m getting tired of saying this, but in movie after movie, it keeps on being true—is not an exceptional actress. She’s just adequate: pretty and personable enough to hold the screen, but not complex or charismatic enough to make us forget the screen is there.
It’s unfortunate for The Other Woman that it opened so quickly on the heels of John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole, another, far superior drama about an affluent couple grieving for a lost child. Despite the heaviness of its subject matter, Rabbit Hole never foundered into melodrama—both because it remained tightly focused on the tension between the devastated parents and because those parents were played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, two actors who, at their best, are capable of communicating the ambiguity and depth of an experience like mourning. Natalie Portman may have the black swan and the white swan down, but she’s still working on the gray.
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Correction, Feb. 6, 2011: This article originally misidentified William as Jack’s stepson. (Return to the corrected sentence.)