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May 13, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 13, 2006 |

I’ve been struggling for the past few days to try and figure out just where to begin my assessment of A Good Woman. Now, I’ve begun reviews before by talking about such struggles, but in those instances I was searching for a way to summarize a remarkable film and my complex feelings toward it but, in the case of A Good Woman, I’m at a loss to explain just how boring, dull, flat, uneventful, and generally lifeless the film really was. It’s hard to focus my mind for very long on the film or my experience of viewing it, since my brain reacts the way it did when I slogged my way through my one and only finance class in college: My nose starts to bleed, and then there’s a complete blackout. I wake up hours later, my pants missing, wondering what happened, at which point my mind wanders back to A Good Woman, and the whole process starts over again. Starring Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johansson, and Tom Wilkinson, the film was originally scheduled for holiday 2004 release, having played the Toronto International Film Festival earlier that year. It doesn’t speak well of the film that its release was pushed back for more than a year and left to die an art-house death in February. Screenwriter Howard Himelstein transplants Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan from an 1890s London drawing room to the hillside villas of Amalfi, Italy, in 1930, an understandable change since movies set entirely in one location, though sometimes technically impressive, can easily veer into boredom for the viewer (see Tape, Cube, other films with monosyllabic one-word titles). But any punch Wilde may have packed in the original by confining it to a 24-hour period in one setting is drained as Himelstein and director Mike Barker instead follow the aimless lives of their upper-class characters from one dry party or lunch to the next, all the while trading quasi-Wilde witticisms and stumbling among a few “Three’s Company”-style misunderstandings. A Good Woman lacks the energy to fill the screen and would probably have been better suited for A&E or PBS.

The film begins in New York with Mrs. Erlynne (Hunt), a gold-digger who’s forced to leave town after finally sleeping with too many of high society’s husbands. Hunt actually narrates the first sequence, her uninspired reading dragging the voice-over even lower than Himelstein could have predicted when he churned out the lame patter. As a rule, narration almost never works. Never. When it does work, it can add a depth and life to the story, but when it fails, it fails big time. It’s a back door for writers who don’t want to create actions that will describe their characters, so they sit down and bang out a few pages of narration and hope that the viewer won’t notice that (a) the writer couldn’t figure out an original way to start the story and (b) the narration stops 10 minutes in and doesn’t reappear. And sure enough, Hunt’s narration ceases once she departs for Italy, never to return. She arrives in Amalfi with her eye on Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers), who’s spending the summer there with his wife, Meg (Johansson), and a few friends.

From the start, Meg is the object of interest for Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore), a smug playboy with a blase attitude to match his yacht, firing off snide asides as he pursues Meg, who resist his urges and remains faithful to Robert. Meanwhile, Mrs. Erlynne snares Robert, and the two begin to spend time together: Robert gives her an allowance to stay in the latest fashions, and her appearance in town and suddenly high profile don’t escape the notice of the residents, including Contessa Lucchino (Milena Vukotic), and the gossip spreads so quickly you’d think Amalfi was a junior-high cafeteria. Meg hears the gossip, too, and is torn between her loyalty to Robert and the lusts of Darlington.

That’s supposed to be the setup to propel the story into some kind of action, or intensity, or emotional conflict, but it never develops. Scenes plod along with a bare minimum of energy and pace; you’re never in doubt about what will happen or when. There’s a mild twist at one point, which I won’t reveal here, except to say you can see it coming from Meg’s first appearance. It’s an utterly worthless turn of events, as well; not one character benefits from it. The entire film is filled with people whose actions, though often heinous and never completely kind, have no consequences, and without even a loose set of rules, the film’s world goes from a mirror to a wall, from a parable to science fiction. With nothing holding them to any kind of code, it’s a wonder these characters bother to get jobs, get married, or have lives in the first place.

This is the second film to see recent release that pairs Scarlett Johansson with a generically handsome love interest who’s about as interesting as watching paint dry, though if given the choice, I would’ve preferred the paint. The script requires nothing more of Umbers than to look surprised on a few occasions and guilty on a few others, and he ably sidles to the challenge by offering a remarkable performance as a placeholder. Not surprisingly, the standout among the cast is Wilkinson, as Lord Augustus, a socialite who falls for Mrs. Erlynne. Wilkinson shuffles through each scene with such an abundance of grace and confidence that it’s as if he’s in an entirely different movie than the rest of the cast. Wilkinson is one of those annoyingly reliable actors who can be counted on to add depth to bit roles or to carry the emotional weight of a lead, as he did in the stunning In the Bedroom.

Things work out about as predictably as you’d expect, which is to say not that great, but far better than these characters deserve. Wilde’s swipes at class have been replaced by Barker’s sympathy for the devils of the rich. By the end of the film’s stuffy 93 minutes, I found myself wondering just what it was I was supposed to have learned, or felt, or realized.

Then I blacked out.

Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.

A Good Woman / Daniel Carlson

Film | May 13, 2006 |

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