Self-designated rom-coms have never made it to the top of my list. Perhaps that tells you something about my prejudices as a viewer, but the genre is so ripe with cliché and neatly tied-up saccharine endings that it feels like watching the same movie over and over. Like romance novels, whose strict rubric designates on exactly which page the first kiss should fall and exactly where the climax should reach its peak, rom-coms tend to feel regimented and propagandistic, specifically designed to indoctrinate an ideal that 1950’s American normalcy is the one true path to happiness. And the way they are marketed specifically to women so aggressively makes that indoctrination all the more worrisome. Of course there are a handful of stunning exceptions to this rule, but for the most part such repressiveness is inherent to the genre; action movies are violent, musicals have songs, and rom-coms contain a heavy-handed moralism.
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Producers: Maguy J.B. Cohen, Donald J. Lee Jr., Chuck Pacheco, Julie Yorn
Writer: Melissa Stack
Cinematographer: Robert Fraisse
Music: Aaron Zigman
Editors: Jim Flynn, Alan Heim
Cast: Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Don Johnson, Kate Upton, Taylor Kinney, Nicki Minaj
Genre: Comedy / Romance
Premiere: April 1, 2014 – Amsterdam
US Theatrical Release: April 25, 2014
US Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
The Other Woman was billed as something different, a “revenge-com” that turns the genre on its head by altering its orbit from man-centered romance to woman-powered vengeance. The concept sounds like something between Bridesmaids and Kill Bill, but the result is anything but. The Other Woman achieves an impressive feat, managing to cast three women in its leading roles, have their friendship be the center of the plot, yet still not pass the Bechdel test—these “characters” do nothing the entire film but talk about men, primarily their shared lover Mark King (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau). And this is rather remarkable, since the schlocky antics drag on for close to two hours.
The plot centers on Carly Whitten (Cameron Diaz), a high-powered and exceedingly wealthy New York attorney who discovers that her new beau Mark —a high-powered, exceedingly wealthy venture capitalist—is already married. When Carly meets Mark’s wife, Kate (Leslie Mann), the two strike up an unlikely friendship and collaborate to torture Mark to punish him for his selfish lifestyle. But what is so disappointing about the plot is how timid it is about sex and sexuality. Carly has been “dating for decades” as she puts it, clearly not interested in the cultural expectations that want her to settle into a monogamous relationship, yet the instant she finds out her boyfriend is married, she drops him like a dead fish. Carly consoles a crying Kate, who has just realized her husband has been cheating, by telling her to, “cry on the inside, like a winner,” yet she is unwilling to be culpable in that woman’s already collapsing marriage.
Carly insists several times through the film that she is not a mistress, at least not technically, because she never knew Mark was married. Her reverence for the sanctity of the marriage institution is never explained, but it feels antithetical to her exterior as a big city sophisticate. And what’s worse is that it could have made this movie much more interesting. What could have made her character mysterious, daring, morally ambiguous, or even sexy, and created drama, suspense, or competition is immediately thrown out the window in favor of a puritanical sense that marriage is sacrosanct. This prudishness is even more surprising when our odd couple (big city Carly and suburban wife Kate) meet Mark’s other other woman, Amber (Kate Upton), a 20-year-old fitting perfectly into every dumb blonde stereotype who Carly (affectionately?) refers to as “the boobs.” Without batting an eyelash, 20-something bombshell Amber accepts these two women as partners in crime, throws out her hot older boyfriend, and starts the film’s descent into a raunchy Cameron Diaz pranks movie.
Estrogen pills, nipple tweaking, dog slobber, laxatives, and fake chlamydia all make appearances in the trio’s harassment of their former lover, but never sex. And through this PG-13 prudishness, the film makes sex and sexuality inherently male commodities. Mark wants sex, too much of it with too many people, and that is the crisis at the center of The Other Woman; but none of the three women have any visible sexuality. How different a movie this would be if the wife and the mistress got back at their philandering lover not with frat boy pranks, but by finding love elsewhere, maybe even in each other. But this is unthinkable in a film so phallocentric that the three central characters can only interact by talking about a man.
Beyond its flat female characters and patriarchal assertion of masculine authority, The Other Woman also manages to be oddly racist and classist. Its central characters all lead lavish, über wealthy lives, so much so that much of the film’s intended satisfaction must come from vicarious identification: convertibles, designer purses, mansions in Connecticut and chic, huge Manhattan apartments all feature prominently. Its only interaction with non-white characters—beyond the token secretary, Lydia (Nicki Minaj)—comes when they go to a restaurant called “no hands” where each patron is assigned a young Asian woman to massage them and feed them throughout their meal, since they are not allowed to feed themselves. Where the joke lies in this scene is hard to imagine, but it goes further than almost any other to declare in big, bold letters, “This movie is for white women.”
Perhaps the saddest part of the whole affair is the talents that have gone to waste. Diaz is unsurprisingly unimpressive, phoning it in like she has for the last dozen years, but Leslie Mann brings a curious energy and vitality to what is a poorly written and badly costumed role. Kate wears nothing but tacky floral prints (maybe to distract us from the fact that she is a beautiful movie star and not a wife whose looks have faded, driving her husband into the arms of another) but she is energetic, funny, charmingly sweet, and grating in equal parts. Her lines are just as bland as her compatriots’, but she adds a natural magnetism while the rest of the cast doesn’t even bother. The use of Coster-Waldau is a particular waste. He’s shown his considerable acting chops on Game of Thrones but here he is just a pretty actor playing a stupid role.
Most disappointing of all, though, is the film’s director, Nick Cassavettes. The son of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavettes, this is a boy who grew up on the set of some of the 70s’ most complex portrayals of women, even playing one of the children in the masterful A Woman Under the Influence. If Carly had an ounce of the conflicted self-doubt of Rowlands’s Mabel Longhetti she might be likeable, or at least real, but this movie is as flat as they come. The apple has, sadly, fallen far from the tree.