Playing the other woman in "The Other Woman" is an uncomfortable fit for Natalie Portman.
Sure, she did crazy beautifully in "Black Swan," earning an Oscar nomination for her performance as a ballerina pirouetting into madness. But playing a home wrecker and the stepmother to a young boy seems incongruent with her innately girlish likability.
Writer-director Don Roos doesn't do her any favors by jumping all over the place in tone; he goes from deadpan humor to melodrama to awkward attempts at reconciliation, with all the subtlety of a made-for-TV movie. And in adapting his script from the Ayelet Waldman novel "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits," Roos leaves holes in logic and emotional resonance.
For example, does Portman's character, Emilia, feel the slightest bit guilty about breaking up the marriage of an older, wealthy Manhattan lawyer named Jack (Scott Cohen)? Does Jack have any remorse about the way his affair has damaged the lives of his ex-wife, Carolyn (Lisa Kudrow), and his sensitive son, William (Charlie Tahan)? These are just some of the many questions begging to be answered.
But even more fundamentally: What does Emilia see in Jack? If he were sexy, funny and warm — or possessed even one of those traits — it might make some sense. Cohen plays him as standoffish and scolding. And suggesting that Emilia is drawn to him because she has daddy issues plays like facile pop psychology.
Emilia's motivations are so nebulous that it's awfully hard to root for her, but, ostensibly, that's what we're supposed to be doing in watching "The Other Woman."
When we first meet Emilia and Jack, they're getting over the loss of their baby after only three days of life. At the same time, Emilia is trying to forge her own bond with William, but it's tough. He's one of those precocious, neurotic kids you only see in the movies — the kind who are obsessive-compulsive about germs, insist on wearing a helmet while ice skating and only eat pudding made from soy.
Emilia's interactions with William represent the only moments that vaguely resemble real human relations. She teases him and tries to get him to have fun, he remains uptight, and their banter can be lively and charming. Still, despite her efforts, Jack strangely accuses Emilia of being cold to his son.
Flashbacks reveal how their affair began. Emilia was a new associate at Jack's law firm; the daughter of a judge, she was fresh out of Harvard Law School. Jack was more established at the firm and had a comfortable life with his status-hungry wife, one of the city's superstar pediatricians. (Later, Carolyn comes off as maniacally driven to get William into an elite private school; she freaks out when he's not accepted at her top choice.)
Arbitrarily, Emilia finds herself smitten by Jack. But when the two go off on a business trip together, and Jack follows Emilia down the hall to her hotel room after a night of flirting, the moment should be fraught with sexual tension. Instead, jaunty music jarringly depletes the scene of its drama. In no time, she's pregnant with their child and the two are married.
At other moments, though, the exchanges feel realistic because they're awkward, such as the conversation Emilia has with a good friend who has suffered a miscarriage. Roos does find elements of truth here and there; frustratingly, there are too few of them.