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February 1, 2006 9:00 AM
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A "Woman" of No Importance: Mike Barker's "A Good Woman"

Scarlett Johansson in Howard Himelstein's "A Good Woman." Photo credit: Sergio Strizzi, courtesy of Lions Gate.

"A Good Woman," the original title of Oscar Wilde's 1892 play "Lady Windermere's Fan," is a film about the same characters we've met in the play's previous incarnations, only this time many of them are Americans and they're on the shores of the Italian Riviera in 1930. This shuffle of accents, costumes, and scenery is apparently the only innovation justifying this remake; instead of reviving the play or casting it in a new light, "A Good Woman" picks up the story, empties it of meaning, and clumsily parades around in it as though she's made something old new again.

Here, the aging temptress Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) leaves New York, scorned by society for sleeping with everyone's husband, and departs for the Amalfi coast to try her luck with vacationing aristocrats. Mrs. Erlynne sets her sights on the married Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers), a wealthy young American who falls quickly under her spell and starts writing checks. Meanwhile, Windermere's tediously priggish wife, Meg (Scarlett Johansson), is preoccupied with the flirtations of her husband's cynical friend, Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore). The exact nature of the relationship between Mrs. Erlynne and Mr. Windermere is mysterious, and idle gossips jump to conclusions. What ensues is farce, but it peters out in time for the Windermeres to reconcile and the wealthy and kind-hearted Lord Augustus (Tom Wilkinson) to make an honest woman out of Mrs. Erlynne.

Or, put simply, the whore becomes a virgin, the virgin becomes a whore, and then at the very end the virgin-cum-whore becomes a virgin again. The end. Wilde wrote that "Men become old, but they never become good." Women, however, seem to do just that--at least in this film. That is not the case in the play, of course, where our Windermeres are Lord and Lady rather than hardworking puritans Rob and Meg, where there is no Great Depression to justify Mrs. Erlynne's penniless wanderings, and--most importantly-- where there is a Windermere child to cramp their style and underscore the selfishness of their potentially adulterous actions. Wilde's characters are frankly egotistical adults acting badly; the work to make selfish scoundrels compelling is done by witty aphoristic dialogue. This film would have us believe that these same characters are all really good at heart, they're just misunderstood, and the moral of the story is not that "scandal is gossip made tedious by morality," but rather that gossip is not moral and therefore it--rather than lying, cheating, or blackmailing--is bad, because it hurts "innocent" people. By supposedly updating the play, the filmmakers have sucked out its cynical soul and put the worst kind of hypocritical American moralizing in its place.

In writing the screenplay, writer/producer Howard Himelstein apparently struggled to make Wilde's satirical characters more human and sympathetic. "Historically, Wilde's characters can be seen as a shallow lot. Their brilliant words are their armor," he is quoted as saying. Apparently, Mr. Himelstein defines human and sympathetic as dim-witted and conventional. A taste of the carnage: Wilde's line, "Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of pretty ones," has been changed to "Plain women cry, pretty women go shopping!"

Ultimately, this supposedly romantic comedy fails to woo because no effort is made to allow these characters any emotional depth or even any understandable motivation, and it fails to be funny due to astonishingly bad timing on the part of everyone involved. Why any man is willing to spend time in the company of Hunt's cloying character--let alone pay her for sex!--is inconceivable, considering the exclusively unflattering light in which she is portrayed, figuratively and literally. Even hot mama Johansson is hard to watch and even harder to listen to as she chews on flirtatious repartee with game stage actor Moore. The notable exception to this mess is, of course, Tom Wilkinson: Hardest Working Man in Hollywood, whose performance feels valiantly honest amidst this massive artifice about to collapse under the weight of its own self-satisfaction.

Wilde wrote that it is absurd to divide people into good and bad; people are either charming or tedious. "A Good Woman" is dreadfully tedious. Perhaps a bad woman (or two) might have made this film more charming.

[Lauren Kaminsky is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

Scarlett Johansson and Mark Umbers in Howard Himelstein's "A Good Woman." Photo credit: Sergio Strizzi, courtesy of Lions Gate.

Take 2 by Nicolas Rapold

One could argue that the casting of Helen Hunt as Mrs. Erlynne in this screen adaptation of "Lady Windermere's Fan" is not disastrous but thoughtful. Perhaps the urge to turn away from the screen when Hunt appears is a distant relative to the fidgeting of 19th-century audiences upon encountering Wilde's satirical work. After all, the great wit's famed epigrams can seem more insightful the greater the paradox that is presented, and by that measure, Hunt's sitcom-smug line delivery here is an ideal mismatch. This theory is dashed at any number of points, like the queasy-making spectacle of Hunt stiffly describing the traditional role of the folding fan in seduction. For the other half of the adventuresome casting, it's nice to see Scarlett Johansson as a wronged wife, Lady Windermere, but she seems muffled and self-burdened with labored diction. (The two actors at least seem a good match, both thrust with dubious suddenness into the critical spotlight without being quite up to it.) Here they're showed up by a supporting cast that's at least entertaining--the best being Tom Wilkinson as Tuppy, spry and at ease with his Wildean fool's wisdom. But Director Mike Barker's rejiggering of "Windermere" into a foreign locale (the Italian Riviera) proves one adventure too many, making the play just a well-edited, pretty-looking intrigue d'amour with some particularly zingy one-liners.

[Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer, the assistant editor of Film Comment, and is the film editor of Stop Smiling.]

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