Anyone suffering from Natalie Portman overexposure, or silently cursing her for being glowingly pregnant, newly engaged and Oscar-nominated in addition to being one of the most genetically perfect creatures walking the earth, will be pleased to know that the actress spends much of The Other Woman—Don Roos’ upsetting, uneven, engrossing adaptation of Ayelet Waldman’s novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (2006)—looking utterly miserable.
On the heels of Rabbit Hole and Blue Valentine comes another winter downer, perfect for those looking to exacerbate their Seasonal Affective Disorders. In The Other Woman, Portman stars as Emilia, a young woman who lives a financially charmed life on the Upper West Side with her husband, Jack (Scott Cohen), and his 8-year-old son from his first marriage, William (Charlie Tahan, a gifted child actor who last appeared in Charlie St. Cloud). When Emilia picks William up from school, the other mothers whisper, and we soon why: Not only did Emilia, a former associate at Jack’s law firm, seduce him away from his ex-wife, Carolyne (Lisa Kudrow), but she and Jack have also recently lost their three-day-old daughter to SIDS.
The loss of her newborn, understandably, eclipses all other problems for Emilia (a more fitting title for the film would be The Dead Baby, but I doubt that would help ticket sales). Two months later, she is devastated and vulnerable, her hair unkempt, her face wan. She forgets to button her coat against the winter chill, hurries past strollers in Central Park, and snaps at William and Jack. Through flashbacks, we learn that her marriage is still new—Emilia was already a few months pregnant when Jack left Carolyne—and that she hasn’t fully adjusted to life as a stepmom. William is a good kid, but can be unintentionally cruel (he breezily informs Emilia that her daughter was never really a person—something he heard from his mother), and Emilia retaliates with small acts of negligence, such as encouraging him to eat ice-cream even though he’s lactose intolerant.
Carolyne, meanwhile, is still so hurt that she tries to legally prevent Emilia from being William’s guardian (Kudrow, so nuanced and wonderful in Roos’ The Opposite of Sex, has little to do here but spit venom).
The Other Woman has moments of levity and charm (mainly in the scenes between Portman and Tahan, who have a sweet chemistry), but mostly it’s depressing, and not just because of the dead baby. Every character is wracked with some kind of grief or guilt: Emilia’s co-worker Mindy (Lauren Ambrose) struggles with infertility, while her parents (Debra Monk and Michael Cristofer) are rekindling their relationship after infidelities caused by her father’s sex addiction. The only character who isn’t sad most of the time is Anthony Rapp, who enjoys about three minutes of total screen time as Simon, another co-worker who serves mainly to listen sympathetically to Emilia’s travails (the Rent checks must have slowed down). There’s nothing wrong with depressing movies, but don’t go into the theater expecting anything resembling a comedy—SIDS has a way of dampening the mood.
On second thought, depressing isn’t the word. Maybe it’s unsettling. It’s unsettling to watch Emilia suffer because sometimes it’s hard to feel bad for her. She makes a shameless play for Jack, knowing full well he’s married, even showing up to a company party at his apartment wearing a tiny, strapless dress and an expression of entitlement, as if there is no reason in the world that his perfect house—and family—shouldn’t be hers. At the rehearsal dinner for their wedding, she dismisses Mindy, who has recently miscarried, with an insincere, “This’ll be you before you know it!” and makes out with her soon-to-be husband, seemingly without a care in the world (certainly not for his jilted wife and lonely son). Carolyne may be portrayed as a one-dimensional harpy, but Emilia’s no saint. Surely she didn’t deserve what happened, but you get the uneasy sense that she had something coming to her.
While it’s hard not to get swept up in the heartbreak, especially with such a solid, complex performance by Portman, some scenes ring false. A “remembrance walk” for pregnancy and infant losses near the end of the film serves as a catalyst for a blow-up between Emilia and her father that seems kind of beside the point (now, on top of everything, we have to worry about her daddy issues?). And the baby’s death—which has already permeated every scene in the movie—is drawn out again in horrible detail toward the end.
Roos has a gift for writing affecting, complicated narratives, but The Other Woman is certainly his most tortured work yet, a complete 180 from the saccharine Marley & Me. It’s the kind of movie you will never want to see again, but that sticks with you after the lights come up and you’re released back onto the street, into a world that suddenly seems a little more bearable.