Currently, there are many opportunities to watch Natalie Portman flex her acting chops, but only one simultaneously brings her to a theater near you and an even nearer living room. “Black Swan” continues its successful theatrical release; sex comedy “No Strings Attached” earned $20 million and the top box-office spot on its opening weekend. And then there’s “The Other Woman,” which hits theaters this weekend a month after its premiere on cable platforms around the country. Despite being the most readily available member of this Portman triple-assault, it’s also the weakest, although that much should be obvious from its castaway status on VOD. If it’s not, read on.
A few years into the proliferation of video-on-demand distribution, the strengths and weaknesses of the format are apparent. VOD excels at creating instant, heretofore unavailable audiences for odd little features that would otherwise dawdle in obscurity, such as Michael Tully’s eccentric brotherly drama “Septien,” which became available in households around the country concurrent with its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last month (alongside four other movies released by IFC Films). A single passing notice for “Septien” in the New York Times may have led dozens of audiences to switch it on and discover a distinctly weird experience they may never find at a local theater. This process of discovery allows all kinds of unconventional cinema to catapult its way to the attention of larger audiences.
VOD also enables the popularity of lackluster product driven solely by its intrinsic commercial appeal, a phenomenon epitomized by “The Other Woman.” Prior to its theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles, the movie has already become a sizable on-demand blockbuster, landing upwards of $1 million in ticket sales from home rentals, according to a report by Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times. Shot nearly two years ago (it premiered at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival under its original title, “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits”), “The Other Woman” is mainly useful now because it illuminates an unrefined era of development for the current Oscar nominee, when she was more susceptible to bad choices. Ironically, the VOD numbers inadvertently validate those choices long after she has moved beyond them.
Based on a novel by Ayelet Waldman, “The Other Woman” stars Portman as the incessantly mopey Emilia, a Harvard law grad. She had an affair with her then-boss, Jack (Scott Cohen), who was then married to the moody Carolyn (Lisa Kudrow). After that marriage fell apart, Emilia and Jack married — but when they had a child, it died within a matter of days.
Moving between the couple’s initial adulterous courtship and the ensuing grief following their kid’s demise, the story takes a series of excruciating stabs at melodrama and suffocates in lackluster dialogue. Flatly directed by Don Roos, its only saving grace is Portman’s evident commitment to the role; in her intense evocation of Emilia’s desperation, she seems to be holding out hope for a deeply human tragedy of intimate proportions. Sadly, those sort of aspirations hold no ground when major plot points include her irritated stepson’s onset of diarrhea when Emilia stupidly ignores his lactose intolerance and gives him ice cream. More at home in a Farrelly brothers comedy than the sorrowful portrait Roos intends, such missteps are worsened by the sheer implausibility of Emilia’s marriage, the worst case of cross-generational coupling since Don and Betty Draper.
Comparing Portman’s fragile, uneasy presence in this mismanaged vehicle to her ferociously versatile work in “Black Swan,” the title of “The Other Woman” takes on new meaning. It now refers to an earlier stage of the actress’s career, The Other Portman, which she has left in the dust — except that she hasn’t. Call it the Portman Principle: The ever-mixed blessing of VOD functions here as a dumping ground, only slightly hidden by the spotlight on an A-lister out of her element.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A hit on VOD, “The Other Woman” will probably perform decently in limited theatrical release as a result of Portman’s current “It” girl status, and its popularity will continue on DVD for a little while before people forget about it.
criticWIRE grade: C-