Dear Natalie Portman:
Well, hey, first things first: congrats on that Oscar nomination. It was richly deserved; I mean it, seriously, you were terrific in Black Swan. Plus, makin' out with Mila Kunis, that had to be pretty awesome, right? I'm imagining? Sorry, you're probably tired of talking about that. But yeah, kudos on the nomination. (Between you and me, I think there's a pretty good chance you're gonna win it.)
But that's not actually why I'm writing you. Frankly, I'm writing because I'm a little concerned about where your career goes next. You see, a couple of weeks ago, I saw No Strings Attached, and then a couple of days back, I saw your other new release, The Other Woman. I understand why they're being released now--those distributors are pretty smart, cashing in on all your positive buzz. The reason I'm worried, Natalie (may I call you Natalie?), is that you're not just the star of these two (let's be honest) less than stellar motion pictures. You're also credited as executive producer. This would imply that you had a hand in getting them made, that you saw each of them as positive forward steps in the cultivation of your screen image, that you looked at both projects and said, this is the next move. And that's very worrisome indeed.
Don't get me wrong, I can see how roles like these would appear to be positive opportunities to show some versatility. No Strings gave you the chance to talk dirty, act sexy, and do romantic comedy. Emilia, the role you play in The Other Woman, seems an equally deliberate move towards more adult roles; she's not a terribly admirable person (particularly in the flashbacks), moody and calculating, often just plain mean. I can see you resisting the notion of perpetually playing the fragile good girl.
But why this movie? I'm guessing you wanted to work with Don Roos, and who can blame you? The Opposite of Sex was just fantastic; Happy Endings is grossly underrated. But those films worked because Roos is a satirist, and a wicked one; he's got a way with fast, mean dialogue and broadly comic situations played straight. When he does this kind of straight-on melodrama (as he previously attempted in 2000's Bounce), he's wasting his gifts.
The primary story--of a young woman who breaks up the marriage of a colleague (Scott Cohen) when she gets pregnant, then tries to keep their young marriage together after their newborn dies--is compelling, and her strained relationship with his son (Charlie Tahan) has a nice arc to it (those scenes are the strongest in the picture). But it's told in a flat, predictable way, without much in the way of wit or intelligence, and it has the misfortune of following Rabbit Hole--a much subtler and smarter examination of parents coping with the loss of a child--into theaters. (That's an unfortunate bit of timing, since this film was presumably shot first; it's been languishing without distribution since its debut at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival.)
There are a few things in it that work. Roos inhabits his New York locations comfortably. Lisa Kudrow's first scene raises our hopes; nobody does an awkward pause as well as she. But the script renders her character (the jilted wife) so insane, so villainous, that the conflict feels false; she might as well twirl a mustache. The third act is strained and endless--it's just as bottom-heavy as No Strings was. The script (which Roos adapted from a novel by Ayelet Waldman) is none too subtle: dialogue is frequently forced, the foreshadowing and Freudian overtones are right on the nose, that torn family drawing is a metaphor out of a silent movie, and the reveal of the deep dark secret was an artifice I could've done without. And speaking of things we could do without: Adam Rapp as the gay best friend? Seriously, Natalie Portman? Can we either reinvent or dispose of that trope?
And Natalie, I'm just not sure how we're supposed to feel about your character. The deeper we get into the story, the more you come off as a spoiled brat. It's a fine performance (it's hard to get a bad performance out of you, though Lucas sure did his best), but the script keeps boxing you in to the same beats over and over again, crying then yelling, crying then yelling, falling apart for two long hours. It's a little exhausting, and that tacked-on, out-of-nowhere happy ending doesn't offer much relief.
So, yeah, The Other Woman isn't very good. No worries; it was made so long ago, you're probably barely thinking about it these days, what with all your "Oscar buzz" and stuff. (Did I congratulate you for that yet?) But this and your unfortunate foray into co-starring with Ashton Kutcher are worrisome. I'm not trying to tell you what to do; far be it from me! I'm just worried. If you're in a position where you can make your own projects happen--and it appears that you are--then they should be stronger projects than these. They should be worth your time and talent. What's the point otherwise?
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.