Josie Potenza (Halle Berry) is going through a rough patch with her husband, Tony (Christopher McDonald): they're both cheating on one another -- Josie with restaurant owner Jake Golden (Clive Owen) -- and Tony's drinking is getting out of hand. In an attempt to save her marriage, Josie convinces Tony to put down the bottle and head up to a cabin in the mountains. The getaway doesn't go as planned, with Tony hitting the bourbon again and returning to the city to deal with a crisis at his company, and Josie staying behind alone. She meets a local, Cole Wilson (Peter Greene), and she confesses some of her problems to him, including the pre-nup that would leave her without a cent were she to try and leave Tony. Unexpectedly, Cole suggests that Josie hire someone to bump Tony off. Josie panics, chasing Cole off at gunpoint and returning to the city, where she patches up her relationship. Unfortunately for all of them, Cole is ready to set "Josie's" plan in motion...
There's an interesting movie somewhere in The Rich Man's Wife, which is effective in fits and starts but never completely gels. The film is the fourth and final directorial effort by Amy Holden Jones, whose fascinating career (Scorsese's assistant on Taxi Driver! Writer of Mystic Pizza! Director of Slumber Party Massacre! Was hired as the editor for E.T. but walked away!) certainly suggests someone with enough ideas and range to craft something uniquely special. The finished film further illustrates that Jones has skill with action, an eye for actors, and feminist and racial sensibilities in her writing that make the script smarter and more interesting, but the end result is mysteriously bland, a concoction that needed some extra element to really take off.
The film at least partially sets up an interesting dynamic in which Josie's situation is constantly being affected by men acting either on her behalf or in what those men think are her best interests. As Cole reveals his true self, he first attempts to rape Josie, claiming he can "smell" how much Josie wants it. When he pops up again and murders Tony (a fascinatingly brutal and drawn-out scene that really invites the audience to consider how sadistic the crime is), he seems to believe that Josie really wanted it done, even though he protects himself from the possibility that she'll call the police, and despite other motives. Those other motives, which I won't spoil, involve more outside manipulation of Josie's life, and even Tony, who sincerely seems to care about Josie when they patch things up, dies without a will, leaving behind only a pre-nup that represents another form of control.
In theory, this is a compelling thematic thrust, but Jones wants to do something more complex with the character of Josie that ends up being at odds with the way the film swirls around her. She's seen through two lenses: the woman who did kind of want her husband to go away, and the woman who definitely didn't ask Cole to murder her husband. Berry is a talented actor, but here she fails to make an impression, playing someone so passive she hardly registers as either. Jones provides interesting backstory for the character that's meant to add further nuance and complication to the situation she's in, but Berry never seems to live in it rather than just say it aloud on screen. She has one good scene that draws on that backstory, in a car fighting with Owen's character Jake, but she ultimately feels miscast. As the film draws to a close, Jones throws in one more curveball with Josie, and it's a shame the film doesn't feel as if it properly builds to it.
The craft of The Rich Man's Wife is more than adequate, including a tense scene where Cole is intimidating Josie by speeding through the woods at night with his headlights off, the aforementioned bloody murder of Tony (as well as another particularly shocking scene where a character gets shot in the ear), and an extremely well-blocked sequence on a freeway that features some great stunt shots. The film is briskly paced and never feels slow even when it fails to really hook the viewer. McDonald is compelling as both in traditional jerk mode and remorseful nice-guy mode, and Frankie Faison has a fun supporting turn as a cop who side-eyes his partner's (Charles Hallahan of The Thing) potential racial profiling.
It's the little details that bring a piece of artwork together. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray for The Rich Man's Wife uses the same art that was created for the old Buena Vista DVD years ago, and it's certainly nothing to write home about to begin with, but there's one minor difference: the title logo has been changed from red to white, rendering the overall composition a bit dull. The one-disc Blu-ray release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
The 1.78:1 1080p AVC transfer included on this Blu-ray is clearly an older master, with slightly blobby grain structure and faintly imprecise clarity. That said, for a quickie catalog release that was never going to get an updated transfer, this is kind of ideal: a satisfactory HD update that offers a noticeable increase in detail, adequate colors, and no invasive noise reduction or compression issues on the part of KLCS. Print damage is not an issue. Fans of the film who want to ditch their old DVDs and get the movie in high def should be satisfied enough, especially with the low price tag. Sound is a slightly more underwhelming DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that offers basic surround separation and adequate clarity. Nothing to write home about, but nothing to complain about either. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Kino Lorber continues in their quest to rehabilitate the audio commentary with The Rich Man's Wife. However, while most of their releases offer insights from the director or some other principal player, The Rich Man's Wife has been assigned to film historian Jim Hemphill. Although this is more of an essay-style overview of Jones's career and the making of the film than a traditional commentary track, Hemphill is an engaging speaker and has an obvious passion for Jones's work and career. He occasionally does respond to something on screen, whether that's some of the supporting cast or the cinematography by Haskell Wexler, but even then he has a very prepared style, diving in deep to outline career trajectories and fill in other historical context. It's a shame that Jones herself didn't want to appear, but this is an impressively well-researched and unexpectedly entertaining track just the same.
An original theatrical trailer for The Rich Man's Wife is also included.
Despite plenty of intriguing ideas and asides, The Rich Man's Wife is a mixed bag at best, one that never quite figures out how to completely pull all of its threads together in a fully compelling way. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray release treats Jones's film solildly across the board -- for the commentary track, I'll award this one rental status.