Poison Candy: ‘The Other Woman’ and the Disastrous State of Female Comedies

As Carly, a New York power attorney of a certain age (39 or 40), Cameron Diaz spends the first 10 minutes of The Other Woman looking very much like a lady who’s just been fucked. Her hair is slightly mussed. Her makeup is on, yet kind of off. Her clothes are vaguely rumpled. It’s a radiant but slightly blinkered look that doesn’t last. Carly soon discovers that the moneyed slickster who’s been mussing her up for two months — his name is Mark, and he’s played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau — has a wife in Connecticut. All of Diaz’s sideways glamour straightens out and stiffens. It’s like spilled chardonnay hardening into concrete. For the remaining 100 or so minutes, she looks very much like a lady who’s been fucked over, first by a man and then by the movie.

Eventually, the wife, Kate (Leslie Mann), arrives at Carly’s firm, then at her apartment, then at her office again. Carly wants nothing to do with Kate, whom she finds pathetic and insecure. Kate is a whiny blabbermouth with no boundaries, no career, children, or friends (she gave them all up for him). Her best pal is a Great Dane that might weigh twice as much as Mann. Nonetheless, she pleads with Carly to help her figure out what to do about her marriage, and for reasons known only to the credited screenwriter (Melissa Stack), Carly agrees. But while getting Kate’s “ducks in a row,” the two surmise that Mark is seeing a third woman. They stalk him in the Hamptons, and Carly explodes because Mistress No. 2 — the swimsuit model Kate Upton, as a buxom dingbat named Amber — is hotter and younger than she is. A slow-motion sequence of a bikinied Diaz chasing a bikinied Upton ensues. Maybe some people in the audience are supposed to remember Bo Derek in 10, do some math, and think 20. But why would that cross your mind in a movie whose comedy and ideas about relationships are aimed at women? Think -2.

The Other Woman floats in a toilet-bowl universe not far from Bride Wars and Something Borrowed, proving you no longer need Kate Hudson to make a Kate Hudson movie. Just flavor it with contempt for womankind and add other Kates! This movie believes it’s empowering that this trio has gotten together to bring down one man. But to do so, the women seem to think it’s necessary to keep him thinking he’s still in all three relationships. You’d also think they’d have something more creative to do than create a “cheater chore calendar” (while “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” plays), and rock-paper-scissors which of them will sleep with Mark to preempt his suspicion.

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The negative-sisterhood comedy has been around at least since Clare Boothe Luce wrote 1936’s The Women. Usually, they’re satires, screwball comedies, and farces. It was the basis of The Witches of Eastwick, Death Becomes Her, and The First Wives Club. Those movies all had their headaches, but the filmmakers at least knew what was funny. They knew where the jokes in the gendering were. I don’t know what anybody thought they knew in The Other Woman. At some point, Diaz and Mann leap into shrubbery. Mann pops up as a truck full of men pulls by, and she pretends to do some impossible pre-run stretches using Diaz’s legs as the men watch. I laughed out loud one time in the theater, and that scene was it. It’s a moment that could’ve been in an actual ’30s screwball comedy. But its arbitrary appearance here signals that the movie’s director, Nick Cassavetes, doesn’t know where the other laughs are. Neither, I would guess, does the producer who hired him.

Cassavetes made She’s So Lovely, The Notebook, and Alpha Dog, movies that all culminate with some kind of violence. (The Notebook’s retirement-home coda is the Saving Private Ryan Normandy-invasion sequence of romantic dramas.) He doesn’t have the touch you need for a movie like this. He’d have been perfect for a Witches of Eastwick, a hard, dirty farce about men, women, and lust that managed to dazzle and insult at the same time. But you need a liar to sell the alleged friendly warmth of a so-called chick flick, where Kate can push Carly from a window and still expect a seat across from her at brunch. To Cassavetes’s credit, he can tell only the ugly truth: These movies hate everybody. When Kate’s Great Dane craps in Carly’s apartment, you’ve never felt more empathy for a floor.

No one knows which takes are funny and which aren’t. More than once, all three women, especially poor Upton, are caught looking like they don’t know what they’re doing. This is not a problem Kate Hudson has had. Hudson appears to own her movies. That ownership has more or less crippled her career, but at least it was something. No one is even permitted a claim of ownership in The Other Woman.

Nicki Minaj is amusingly on-brand as Carly’s non-assistive assistant. She’s all her usual wigs and curves and “oh, snap.” You watch her pocket all her scenes and wonder why she didn’t switch parts with one of the other three. You still wouldn’t have a movie. You’d have a changeup, though. The same goes for Taylor Kinney, who plays Kate’s good-with-his-hands brother. There’s no fuss to his handsomeness or his acting. He’s from modeling and television, but if you didn’t know that, you’d assume he was discovered under a hood. Carly gets a load of him and basically licks her chops, which is about right. She’s done with Mark at that point, and I would pay twice the price of admission to see her drive off into a sex comedy with Kinney. Meanwhile, Coster-Waldau, of Game of Thrones, is playing the classic dirty-dog love as a sex addict. It doesn’t need to be much of a performance, but his willingness to be as thoroughly humiliated as he is by the end is too disturbing to fill you with satisfaction. This is how people are punished on Coster-Waldau’s show.

Mann continues to be an actress who’s best in small doses. Her pinched neuroticism works when it’s up against an actor who cares, like Paul Rudd. But she doesn’t have the range to carry an entire movie. It’s painful watching her try here, like in an early scene in which Kate has a panic attack and, while writhing around on an office bench, asks Carly over and over to open a window. The joke is that they’re in a skyscraper, but the scene goes on so long that the comedy goes stale.

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The best scenes in The Other Woman involve Carly first trying to get rid of Kate and then trying to talk sense into her. That Cameron Diaz is the voice of sanity in any film shows how far she’s come as a star and how strange women’s comedies continue to get. She sits across from Mann in a bar and gives a speech about the bogusness of monogamy and romance. The seriousness with which she speaks in that scene is thrilling. Obviously, the movie intends to disabuse her of her heresy. But Diaz has reached a point where she’s more believable as a woman of thought, wisdom, and steel than as the living embodiment of OMG and LOL. She appears to be reconsidering the lessons of Charlie’s Angels, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Knight and Day, Bad Teacher, The Sweetest Thing, What Happens in Vegas, The Holiday, and In Her Shoes. These are largely abominable movies that treated her sexual glee as a license to degrade.

Diaz is the first star to make a workout of being a single woman — she’s Doris Day on a SoulCycle. Day and Meg Ryan didn’t have Diaz’s ease with carnality. Neither did Jennifer Aniston, who, in movies, turned to seeming sexy because it was more fun for her — and more lucrative — than seeming romantic. Diaz, though, had fun with men and women, and that used to be enough. But you see her in The Other Woman and, mostly, she looks aggrieved. Some of that is acting. Some of it feels like the maturation of a persona. Some of it feels like life. All the great romantic-comedy stars hit a wall and a few, like Ryan, go splat.

Diaz is 41 now, about the age the public began to tire of Day’s keen-virgin act and Ryan’s sense of modern romance. For the first time, you can sense hesitation from Diaz, resistance, and not only because The Other Woman is so shoddily assembled. You sense it because maybe she expects more from herself. The 12 people who caught her become an omnipotent femme fatale in The Counselor and were astonished could sense Diaz turning a corner into some deeper psychological place. The movie led her to drive What Happens in Vegas straight to hell. This is a woman whose stardom has evolved. She knows it’s time to stop being fucked and start fucking you.

Filed Under: Movies, The Other Woman, Cameron Diaz, Kate Upton

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris