by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
When you are making a comedy, you typically need two things in order to make it work. One is a funny script stuffed to the brim with jokes, the other is a cast willing to go the extra mile to make that material work. With a funny script but bored or non-committed actors, you have at best good material landing with much less of an impact than it could have and at worst material with bags of potential being wasted due to the atrocious delivery, timing and all that other good stuff by the actors. With committed actors but a dross script, your talented cast can come off as trying-too-hard or your script just looking even worse than it would have if bored actors were sleepwalking their way through it. That’s not all you need for a good comedy, of course, but if you have those two elements, the rest basically falls into place and it takes something special to screw up the results.
The Other Woman has one of those two components and, if the headline hasn’t already given it away, it’s the game cast. Pretty much everyone who is involved with this film is trying desperately hard above all hope to make this film work and make funny from a script that has little funny; most of them are really good at that trying, too. Unfortunately, despite their very best efforts, they still can’t generate enough laughs to fill the giant voids in the script where there should be more, and there are a lot of those giant voids.
Revolving around three women all being two-timed in some way, shape or form by the charmingly despicable asshat known as Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau); Leslie Mann plays his unaware wife Kate, Cameron Diaz plays his unaware lawyer mistress Carly and Kate Upton plays his unaware youthful mistress Amber. The three are thrown together when they each become aware that Mark is playing the lot of them and, because this is a comedy and not a melodrama, they plot to make his life a miserable sack of crap as revenge for how they treated him. It takes a while to get there, though, I don’t think Amber even enters the film throughout the entire first hour, as the film’s true focus mostly seems to be on the burgeoning friendship between Kate and Carly with Kate freaking out over the collapse of her marriage and Carly finally earning some friends for once in her life.
That’s all fine, the film regularly lampshades how weird it is that the two of them do end up being friends (predominately by having people in the film call out how strange it is) and you know how I feel about strong character work. It does come with the drawback, however, that the film ends up spending a lot of that pre-Amber time spinning its wheels, hitting the same points over and over again. Kate will have a freak-out or attempt to contact Carly or both, Carly will show up and roll her eyes and be kinda bitchy as she tries to prove herself above the situation (Diaz is not so much the Straight Man as she is more the Unlikable Alpha Bitch for a lot of the run-time, the script making her come off too mean to be fully likable for at least 70 of this film’s 109 minutes), then the pair will bond regardless and it’s off to the next scene to do it all again.
This stuck-in-a-rut narrative structure wouldn’t be such an issue if the jokes in the script were anything approaching funny. When Kate comes over to Carly’s apartment, she brings her untrained Dalmatian with her for some such gut-busters like… it sitting on Carly’s sofa when she’d told it not to, it licking Kate’s face after she and Carly had subjected themselves to a night of heavy drinking, and it taking a dump on the floor because animals pooing in front of the camera is… is just… oh, hold my aching sides, please. There’s also a section where the duo are tailing Mark on his way to meeting, what turns out to be, Amber and the Mission: Impossible theme plays and you’re supposed to laugh because it’s the Mission: Impossible theme and that is a thing you recognise. Nicki Minaj shows up, and drops out as the script demands, as Carly’s useless bitchy receptionist whose first response to finding out from Carly that Mark has a wife is to go “And you don’t think you can take her?” because it’s Nicki Minaj acting and isn’t that a novelty?
Things honestly don’t get much better script-wise when Amber enters the picture. There’s an extended (and I mean extended) sequence where Mark is on the receiving end of industrial strength laxatives and fart noises you get from one of those royalty-free sound effect CDs that litter college AV rooms proceed to bombard the soundtrack, Mark is fed hormones meant for pre-op transsexuals and gets freakish looking nipples, and there’s a short situation whose entire punchline revolves around the preconception that transsexuals and cross-dressers are inherently gross and funny. WACKA-WACKA-WACKA!! There are few particularly funny lines thrown about, most of the big scenes run on for way too long and it’s all weirdly paced. Nothing ever really seems to be properly building to anything, it all just kind of meanders, which is likely down to director Nick Cassavetes (previous of the rather good Alpha Dog, the rather not The Notebook and the really rather not My Sister’s Keeper) who, incidentally, is also utterly incompetent at filming and staging physical comedy. I love physical comedy, I adore a good piece of physical comedy, but Cassavetes always picks the wrong camera angle, or paces it wrong, or stages things in such a way that a fall through garden-based scaffolding feels like a brick of cement was thrown through it instead of the character we’re supposed to be watching. He just plain sucks at it.
Going back to the script, though, because the script is the main problem here, what on earth was going on with the final 15 or so minutes? I’m pretty sure I broke my neck on the severity of the various mood whiplashes as we go from wacky comedy to dead serious drama and back again in seconds flat frequently throughout. And you know when the drama is supposed to be going on because mournful piano/inspirational Top 40 hit is cued up on the soundtrack, soft focus is busted out and characters start exchanging long, mournful looks at stuff that probably means something to you if you’re the kind of person who watches these kinds of sequences and goes “THIS SPEAKS TO ME” but just comes off as jarring and out of nowhere. The Other Woman spends most of its run-time mining Kate’s reaction to her marriage falling apart for laughs and then suddenly, for about 5 minutes, it wants to mine it for drama by pulling out the oldest and most clichéd trick in the book? Nope, I’m not biting.
The film even manages to mess up its ending! You know the scene where the women reveal themselves to the man and he breaks down in pure anger at how they managed to play him and ruin his life and it’s immensely satisfying to see this dickhead get his comeuppance? Yeah, they screwed that up! It’s literally the easiest thing in the world, if you’re halfway competent at your job, and they still screwed it up! How? Well, do you know why everything that happened to Dabney Coleman in 9 To 5 remained funny even though he was basically kidnapped and tortured for a much longer time than one can deem as redeemable? Besides the fact that he remains a horrible misogynistic prick right up to the end? Because no blood is ever spilt. It lends proceedings a cartoony feel, an air of unrealness, that all of this behaviour is fine because no-one’s getting hurt so you can cheer on proceedings without ever having second thoughts, feeling guilty or expressing sympathy for the man.
Except that blood is suddenly spilt in the finale and it suddenly becomes harder to laugh at and cheer along with the breakdown. It injects a shot of reality that makes proceedings unpleasant even though the guy having karma collapse on top of him is a huge twat who deserves bad things. The physical comedy that causes the blood is still silly and over-the-top, to such an extent that if the blood wasn’t there it would probably still be OK. But the blood is there and it adds a sudden shot of extreme meanness that, for me at least, pulled me out of that satisfied feeling the finale should have carried. It’s jarring, primarily because blood never appeared anywhere else and it was too much of a shock for it to be in the finale.
In all fairness, there are some laughs here but they are mostly due to the cast of leads attempting to elevate poor material. To some extent, they do succeed. Although the actual scene of him on the toilet never ends up being funny, the whole bit is almost redeemed by a short scene at the end of it where Mark comes home and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau near-flawlessly delivers his explanation to Kate of why he’s turned up home in jeans that aren’t his, aren’t his size and why he’s about to “go see if the toilet can take a punch”. Cameron Diaz is probably the weakest of the bunch, but it’s entirely down to the script that, again, paints her as Alpha Bitch for a lot of its run-time and then shoves her into a romance subplot with a guy who often looks like a douchier Wil Wheaton in order to pad out the runtime. When the film lets her cut a bit loose, she does good work especially with her chemistry with…
…the film’s best asset, Leslie Mann. If you do laugh at this film, I guarantee that 70% of the time it’ll be down to her. She uses her natural charisma and peppy “I’m glad to be here and I will do everything to in my power to make whatever you hand me funny” attitude to great effect, saving over-long stretches or just plain willing material into being at the very least chucklesome. A bit where she’s caught with Carly trying to break into an exclusive club really shouldn’t be funny at all, let alone the near minute and a half it runs for, but she manages to at least make the joke funny for some of that time by virtue of committing fully to the bit. There’s a section where she and Carly are bitchily sniping at Amber from afar when they discover she’s another one of Mark’s mistresses in a scene that is so natural and free-flowing, and contains most of the film’s few legitimate funny lines, I can only assume it spun into improv. And when the film finally allows Kate the chance to get her own back on Mark, Mann is there relishing every last second. She is also a master at hysterical crying which is something her character has to do a lot and, credit is absolutely down to Mann here, it never gets old, producing most of the few legitimate laughs I had at the whole film.
I can’t wrap this review up, though, without mentioning Kate Upton and how surprisingly great she is here. She may flub some line readings, but she’s got natural comic timing and is seemingly very excited to be here. She plays her character as incredibly earnest where the script just wants to write her as Dumb Blonde and it’s the absolute best thing she could have done because it changes her character into somebody more entertaining than it would have been. There’s a bit where the trio are brainstorming ways to hurt Mark and she suggests kicking him in the balls. It’s not laugh out loud funny, but the pure non-cynical “girls, I suddenly have a great idea” nature of her delivery, and her puppy-dog facial expressions when Carly is gently shooting that idea down, at least gave me a good chuckle which is preferable to the total non-reaction I would have gotten otherwise. It’s kind of a shame the film doesn’t use her more, because Upton is genuinely operating on a level not too far removed from the excellent Mann. More roles like this for her, if she’s going to keep acting, please!
Lest you think I’m getting too soft or am about to do an about-face and let off The Other Woman, though, I should stress that my actual laughs were very, very few and far between. Again, despite the cast’s absolute best efforts, this is garbage material at play and it can only be elevated so high. I did smirk a fair bit, giggle a little bit often and, yes, openly laughed every now and again, but there were still too many stretches, too many unintentional stretches, where I was either rolling my eyes or sighing in disgust at yet another tired or unfunny gag or just plain not reacting at all, and those stretches are long. Couple that with the weird tonal fluctuations and the botching of its ending and I cannot recommend The Other Woman overall. It’s better than it could have been, looked and I thought it was going to be, but its capable cast only managed to take a dreadful looking comedy and turn it into a disappointingly bad one and that’s a damn shame.