One of the disconcerting aspects of movie-going is how — on more occasions than you’re prepared for — you have to endure the sight of a favorite actor playing someone despicable. For me, that happens sometimes with Natalie Portman. Gorgeous and sizzling and talented, she’s always lovely to watch but not so easy to like.
Perhaps it’s that aura of East Coast elite meets Fair Trade wardrobe meets “Do you have a vegan menu?” meets Oliver Peoples clear-lens sunglasses? Difficult to say, really. And in spite of her reportedly sky-high IQ (or maybe because of it), Portman tends to stay away from roles that could earn her some much-needed street cred (according to industry reports, Christina Ricci picks up the roles Portman turns down). She was seamlessly awesome in “Black Swan,” but Portman’s other vehicles released this year could cause some head-scratching. Ashton Kutcher’s sex friend in No Strings Attached” is a case in point. And her latest (although it showcased at the Toronto International Film Festival two years back), “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” is another.
“Love and Other … ” is based on a novel by Ayelet Waldman, but during a nearly two-year shelving in the States, the product went through a title change — to (raucous drum roll, please) “The Other Woman.” It’s a sad world when subtlety is trashed and trampled on the ground like that, but oddly enough, the new title condenses the story into a hard little nutshell.
And Portman is the nut. She plays assistant attorney Emilia Greenleaf, blessed with amazing looks and a brilliant mind and coming on shamelessly to her married hottie lawyer boss, Jack (Scott Cohen). Jack caves immediately, Emilia finds herself pregnant, and Jack swiftly unhitches from Carolyne to marry Emilia.
One catch is that Jack’s ex-wife, Carolyne (a fascinatingly enraged Lisa Kudrow), is spitting venom and plotting open combat. Another catch is William (Charlie Tahan), Jack’s 8-year-old son, who’s resentful of daddy’s new wife. The biggest catch of all is that none of these people are very nice, and their sanctimonious dialogue uttered in tasteful Upper East Side surroundings wears on the nerves. “It’s the people who love you you’re the hardest on,” says Jack to William in a tone that can only be described as papal. Boo.
As for Portman, she doesn’t come off as the brave, beautiful stepmom you can’t help but root for, but a woman whose whole persona is made up of privileges, and who can thus be trusted to land on a pair of expertly pedicured feet no matter what. This is rather unfortunate, as Emilia runs up against a load of adversity, such as being shunned by almost everyone in her husband’s circle — including William, his buddies and the other moms at William’s supposedly “diverse” Manhattan school.
Meanwhile, a vengeful Carolyne gets this close to declaring Emilia unfit to raise her children and dragging her into court.
The capper is the unexpected, inexplicable death of Emilia’s 3-day-old baby, Isabel. No one is capable of coping with the tragedy — Jack recedes into his professional commitments while Emilia stays home, yells at William and goes for a city-sponsored walk in Central Park designed to heal people who have lost infants.
All this is understandable and should trigger sympathy — and it does, to a certain point. But director/writer Don Roos (“Bounce,” “The Opposite of Sex”) can’t seem to make up his mind whether to go all out for tear-duct destruction or for drawing a collective derisive snort. After about an hour he’s still unsure, and shuttles the film to a remote corner of the runway, so to speak, the dust rising in swirls and not a drink service in sight. I’m mixing metaphors, but believe me, once you clap eyes on Emilia and co., this rambling will make complete sense.
When the story finally takes off, it’s not Emilia who engineers it but Carolyne. With her husband stolen from under her nose and Emilia’s angst and sadness crowding every frame, it’s not easy for Carolyne — the other other woman — to assert herself without going off the deep end of hysteria. Sure, she’s a witch and probably gave Jack a helluva bad time. But her pain is real, and you may find yourself chanting in a tiny voice, “You go, girl.”