Far from a silly romance, “The Other Woman” is a harsh revenge comedy that pairs Cameron Diaz, in her recent acerbic mode, and Leslie Mann, in her deepest and funniest role to date. Written on the knife edge between farce and naturalism by newcomer Melissa K. Stack, it’s directed with precision and balance by Nick Cassavetes and put over expertly by the cast. The advertisements might look dumb, but the movie isn’t.
The first bit of good news is Cameron Diaz, who – just in the last few years – has stopped smiling all the time. The Diaz we find here is confident, impatient and queenly, as a 40ish lawyer in what seems like an idyllic romance with a handsome businessman (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). As Carly, Diaz has the magnetism and hauteur of a movie star, and so when she finds out that the boyfriend is married, she drops him cold. She’s ready to move on.
But the man’s wife wants to be friends with her. Shocked and devastated by her husband’s treachery, the wife (Leslie Mann) has absolutely no one she can confide in – except for her husband’s former lover. From there, slowly but believably, and at first against Carly’s will, the two become friends ... and then start thinking of ways to get even.
The character of the wronged wife is the movie’s best creation, and Mann’s performance is its revelation. Mann has always been funny, but her performances have been usually within a particular range, playing off a sort of harried but knowing comic persona. But here she’s playing someone naive, and zany, and needy, who can’t shut up and is slightly ridiculous. At the same time, she must also be hurt, and worthwhile, and serious – the carrier of the movie’s emotion.
If you see “The Other Woman,” watch Mann and don’t take her for granted. Watch what she’s doing – or rather how much she’s doing simultaneously. Her line readings seem intuitive and spontaneous, guided by some unerring sense of comic timing. Yet, while nailing every laugh, she ropes in aspects of the character’s history, too. The pain of her betrayal. Her anger at letting herself get talked out of having children. This is the ideal comic synthesis – all the laughs on the surface, but with all the pain underneath.
Later the women meet up with another other woman, a very young blonde named Amber (of course) and played by Kate Upton, who becomes the junior partner in the trio. Upton isn’t nearly as skilled as Diaz or Mann, but her role is pretty basic, to play a nice person who isn’t very bright. Upton plays stupid so well that she must be smart.
Audiences looking for a nonstop laugh riot may be disappointed, but the big laughs are there, and they benefit from the movie’s underlying sincerity. “The Other Woman” isn’t quite as good as “Bridesmaids” – it’s neither as funny nor, ultimately, as serious – but it’s in that general area of aspiration, and its characters aren’t cartoons.
A couple scenes near the finish feel padded. Just when the movie feels like it should be hurtling for the climax, it lingers for seven or eight minutes on extraneous things. But that’s about the worst that could be said for “The Other Woman.” The best is that Melissa K. Stack is a screenwriter to watch and that Leslie Mann’s performance has the fullness of life.
The Other Woman: Comedy. Starring Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann and Kate Upton. Directed by Nick Cassavetes. (PG-13. 109 minutes.) 3STARS OUT OF 4 STARS