In “The Other Woman,” they throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. Most of it does. It’s an escapist women’s empowerment comedy like many others, but elevated by the simple virtue of being, for most of its length, very, very funny.
Set in an upper-class milieu of sleek Manhattan condos, designer clothes and pristine Caribbean beaches, the story follows three women who realize they’re being triple-timed by a cad and join forces to deliver his comeuppance.
Cameron Diaz plays the brains of the operation, a sharp-tongued killer attorney in a whirlwind romance with a handsome executive (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Leslie Mann is his blithely daffy wife, who is also unaware of his duplicity. When the women discover one another’s existence, the comic sparks fly.
The characters are surprisingly well-developed for this sort of genre. Diaz plays her character as a woman of steely intelligence and cynical wit, an alpha female used to stiff-arming her adversaries and bailing out of unsatisfactory emotional entanglements. Melissa Stack’s bright, farcical screenplay gives this go-getter plenty of tart ammunition.
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Mann, an exuberant comedienne, makes a feast of her role, the wronged wife as an innocent, oversharing catalyst of chaos. It’s a career-best performance for Mann, a fizzy brew of vulnerability and pluck. Smiling a bit desperately, dressed in too-chipper florals, she blathers on with the attention-starved energy of a yapping Chihuahua. When she tracks down Diaz, it’s not for a resentful wife vs. rival showdown, but because she needs to talk — in breathy-voiced torrents. Because her husband barely notices her, she needs someone, anyone else to fill the void, even if it’s his mistress.
Diaz, whose character can be a bit of a shrew, reluctantly assents to a conversation, but with a one-hour time limit and the understanding that “we’re not going to braid each other’s hair.” They do, of course, during an all-nighter with tequila shots, but the very inevitability of the gag gives their giggly-weepy coming together an ironic charge.
In another nice touch, the women aren’t immediately hell-bent on retaliating against Coster-Waldau. Diaz declares that “monogamy isn’t a natural state” and wants to move ahead with her life. Mann vacillates, more than half ready to preserve her hollow but privileged status quo. But when they spot him with yet another other woman (Sports Illustrated cover girl Kate Upton), they recruit her in a plan to teach him a painful lesson or three.
The film has its share of defects. It’s overlong by a good 15 minutes and loses steam in the third act, just when things should be gathering momentum. The musical cues are regrettably on the nose (the “Mission Impossible” theme in a detective interlude, a maudlin cover of “La Vie En Rose” for a passage of romantic letdown). As a model/actress, Upton is no Brooklyn Decker. Still, the overall tone is of buoyant good cheer and jazzy spontaneity.
Director Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook”) encourages his actors to perform their hearts out, and most of them deliver above-average work in return. The pert, nimble Mann and wisecracking Diaz have a sparkling comedic chemistry; they seem to enjoy each other’s company. Coster-Waldau is solid as a man who has learned to fake sincerity well enough to fool smart women. When he acts repentant after being exposed, he half-fools us, too. Even in an explosive “Dumb and Dumber” toilet scene, he brings his A game. That, people, is acting.