Writer-director Don Roos's best film so far remains his first one, The Opposite of Sex, a sharp comedy starring Christina Ricci and Lisa Kudrow. He faltered with 2000's Bounce, a drama starring Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow, and fared somewhat better with 2005's Happy Endings, an ensemble piece that co-starred Kudrow and earned good notices for Tom Arnold.
Four years later, Roos made The Other Woman, initially called Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, the title of the Ayelet Waldman novel on which it was based. Starring Natalie Portman as the frequently unsympathetic lead character, Emilia, the movie played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009 and promptly dropped out of sight.
A week before Portman won an Oscar this year for Black Swan, The Globe's Johanna Schneller recalled an interview she had conducted with Roos and Portman about The Other Woman in 2009. "This character has an enormous amount to learn about life," Roos said of Emilia, "and we take a long time to get to where she's broken down enough to start to reassemble herself. That's very risky in today's market, where most films aren't watched in theatres, where you can flip the channel and rent a different movie."
The risk is on. This week, The Other Woman arrived on DVD and Blu-ray. There are no bonus features, which is a shame, because it would have been instructive to hear Roos talk about the effects he sought and the choices he made in translating the novel to the screen. It is not always easy to tell what he had in mind.
Hands down, the best part of the film is Portman. Emilia joins a New York law firm, works for Jack (Scott Cohen) and, after an affair and an unplanned pregnancy, becomes his wife. This does not sit well with Carolyne (Kudrow), the wife Jack divorces, or with William (Charlie Tahan), the articulate and literal-minded third-grader who doesn't warm to Emilia.
As we learn early on though flashbacks, Emilia's newborn daughter died in infancy. The loss haunts Emilia, which may explain her often snappish behaviour. She has a good way with a wisecrack in the opening scenes, but the humour diminishes as the film proceeds. The plot requires characters to yell at each other every few minutes. Sometimes the blow-ups arise naturally from the characters and the situations. Sometimes they seem more of a screenwriting convenience.
Portman surfs these waves with uncommon assurance, making Emilia's emotions ring true even when it's not clear why she would be doing what she's doing. She and Tahan as the son are marvellous together, a tribute to his skill as well as to hers. The story requires him to grow fonder of her as the movie goes on. In fact, that element is crucial if a later scene involving Emilia and Carolyne is to move the viewer, or even to make sense. Since Kudrow plays the ex-wife in a single key - pinched - the scene must work in spite of her character.
The character of Jack is underwritten. At one point, underplaying his reaction to Emilia, he seems to be channelling the measured speech patterns of a David Mamet play. It's a curious choice, but it does catch the attention. A subplot involving Emilia's father is best forgotten.
So it's not hard to figure out why the film has sat on a shelf, and surfaced this year mainly because of the buzz surrounding Black Swan. But it is not a bad movie. It has affecting parts, clumsy parts, perplexing parts and annoying parts. It taxes the viewer's goodwill, and then throws in a scene that rewards the patience.
By the way, the movie's French title translates as Wednesday at the Park. Sometimes finding the right tone is an impossible pursuit.
Also new this week
For slumber parties
Red Riding Hood (2011)
Everybody else has had a crack at this fairy tale - The Company of Wolves mined a sexual undercurrent, Hoodwinked went for knowing laughs - so why shouldn't director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) take a swing? Well, here's the answer: Shot in British Columbia, this underwhelming film stars the luminous Amanda Seyfried as a determined young woman pursued by two moody guys. (Did I mention Twilight?) And somebody's a werewolf. An alternative ending in the Blu-ray edition offers a spot of chilly sex and a little surprise in the final seconds.
Over wine at the cottage
The Decline of the American Empire (1986)
Quebec writer-director Denys Arcand's spirited chat-and-relationship film comes to Blu-ray on its 25th anniversary, in three versions: original French, dubbed into English, subtitled in English. Infuriatingly and inexplicably, given the movie's success outside Quebec, nobody bothered to provide English subtitles for the two enjoyable cast reunions in the extras - one 15 years on, and one 25 years on. A group of history professors and partners in their 40s (the excellent cast includes Rémy Girard, currently seen on English television in InSecurity) engage in a smart, literate round robin of frank talk about sex, sex, life, leisure and sex.
Not for the squeamish
Norm Macdonald: Me Doing Standup (2011)
Saturday Night Live alumnus Macdonald has a wicked way with free association. He will talk in his drawling, droning way about a subject like death and, by milking absurdities (your heart is far more likely to kill you than a terrorist, so what's up with valentines?), arrive at laugh-out-loud riffs. But he can also conjure up revolting images disproportionate to the comic point he seeks. Both sides are on display in this hour-long Comedy Central special filmed in San Francisco. DVD bonuses include Back to Norm, a weak 30-minute sketch-comedy show from 2005, directed and co-written by The Kids in the Hall member Bruce McCulloch.