The Other Woman: Natalie Portman’s Best Performance

As a homewrecking second wife struggling to win over her new stepson, Natalie Portman may have found her most intimate, sympathetic role yet

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Barry Wetcher / Incentive Film Productions

Natalie Portman as Emilia in The Other Woman, directed by Don Roos

With just three weeks until her all-but-inevitable canonization at the Feb. 27 Oscar bash, Natalie Portman is relaxing a bit, the better to care for the baby growing inside her. In movie theaters and on television, though, her Academy Award campaign is flourishing. Black Swan, the ballet thriller that will win her the Best Actress statuette, is still dancing as fast as it can; her romantic comedy No Strings Attached, which opened two weeks ago, was the top-grossing film on Tuesday. The two films are being shown on more than 5,000 screens, and this weekend they are joined by a domestic drama, The Other Woman, which opens in a few cities but is also available in millions of TV homes through Video on Demand.

(See TIME’s full coverage of the 83rd annual Academy Awards.)

When an actress from the middle of the pack achieves sudden acclaim, distributors comb through her unreleased films to see if any can be tossed onto the bandwagon. The Other Woman, which began shooting when George W. Bush was president, played at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival as Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, the title of the Ayelet Waldman novel it’s based on. Now Natalie’s new fan club can catch up with this modest, Manhattan-set story about the relationship of a precocious eight-year-old and his father’s second wife.

Seeing The Other Woman might seem a pleasure only for Portman completists, or a chore for critics. It’s got the checklist of tropes for the indie genre: a woman grieving over her lost infant; a shrill, vindictive rival to remind us to sympathize with the protagonist; three generations of dreadful secrets, to be spilled at top volume at the most inconvenient times; crash courses in learning and hugging; and that damned orchestral underscoring of big emotional moments, as if the breakthrough at a shrink session were accompanied by a guy in the corner playing soulful cocktail-bar piano. Are you dead-tired of these conventions? I am.

(VIDEO: TIME’s 10 Questions with Natalie Portman.)

And yet I liked The Other Woman. It’s a kind of unofficial sequel or sibling, three decades later, to Robert Benton’s Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer: the divorced father with the young son has remarried, and the second wife copes. Not at Kramer‘s high level, but in the same ballpark, The Other Woman earns a viewer’s respect for the grace notes that director-screenwriter Don Roos finds beneath these familiar tunes, for the unassertive skill with which he paints upper-class life on the Upper East Side, and for the rightness of the performances — especially Portman’s and Charlie Tahan’s as her stepson. And though Roos hasn’t matched the fabulously demented comedy universe he created in 1998′s The Opposite of Sex, where he was a fearless breaker of romantic clichés, he proves here that he also knows how to work within them, twisting them into something like movie truth.

Emelia (Portman) is a young, Harvard-trained lawyer who, some years back, set her sights on her new firm’s boss, Jack Wolf (Scott Cohen) — and, putting it baldly, seduced him away from his obstetrician wife Carolyne (Lisa Kudrow). Soon after they were married they had a daughter, Isabel, who died just after coming home from the maternity ward. A few years later, Emelia is still adjusting to losing Isabel while being a mother, kind of, to Jack and Carolyne’s son Will (Charlie Tahan). Flashbacks reveal the bright child’s need to challenge Emelia. His first words to her, on meeting her and receiving her gift of a Natural History Museum stuffed dinosaur toy, is “There’s no evidence that therapods were orange.” Then, glancing at his dad, he whispers the requisite, tentative “Thank you?” As a friend tells Emelia, Will is “high-maintenance.”

As a second wife who in many eyes still wears a home-wrecker tag — at William’s school, the other moms stare at Amelia as if she belongs to al Qaeda — Emelia has two missions, both involving mortal combat. The first is to win Will over from his efficient, stern mom; if Caroline tells Will he’s lactose-intolerant, Emilia will feed him an ice cream sundae (after which he’ll get diarrhea — but did it have another cause?). The second is to earn membership in the boy’s club at home. Jack is a decent guy, but if he must choose sides in a dispute, he’ll give Amelia the impression he’s taking Will’s. He needs constant reassurance that he hasn’t broken his first family for a failed second time around. Emilia must connect with Will because it might prove her marriage a success, and also because he’s as much a treat as a chore to spend time with.

That’s largely due to Tahan, who played Alice Braga’s son in the Will Smith I Am Legend, and who invests Will with a reticent charm that makes each of the boy’s gifts, quirks and motivations clear without italicizing them. The other leading actors are question marks. Granted, it’s Portman’s movie, but Cohen could have used a hint of Jon Hamm’s sexiness to make us understand Emilia’s falling for him. And Kudrow’s Carolyne is more strident than necessary; we’re already primed to hate her, because she’s so cross to our Natalie. The overplaying is peculiar, since Kudrow has been playing this uptight, not-as-brilliant-as-she-thinks-she-is character for decades — all through Friends, and as psychiatrist Fiona Wallace on Web Therapy, the very funny online comedy series she does with Roos. But it’s not her movie, or Cohen’s. It’s the story of a woman wrestling with demons who overcomes them when she discovers that one of her opponents — her balky stepson — just showed up in her corner.

I’ve written before about what I consider Portman’s strange unease before the camera, and how this decorous young lady seems reluctant to let loose playing unattractive characters. Her best roles exploit this tense, wary side of her — Black Swan certainly does — but it’s hard for her to relax into a complex role. She aces it here, and I think it’s because she’s working with a child actor.

Portman, remember, was one of those, 17 years ago — a French hit man’s protégé in Luc Besson’s The Professional. Her Emilia, judging that she can’t discipline Will as a real mom would, uses light sarcasm when she talks with him. Their conversation, as those of so many parents and their kids are, has a peer-to-peer vibe; Emilia pretends either that Will is an adult, which he only half is, or that’s she’s a bright child. Eventually they build an intimacy of equals, which for Will is a different sort of bond from the one he shares with his father, but warmer and just as strong. The relationship isn’t at all romantic, but by the end she’s become Will’s first girl friend.

Tahan’s collaboration helps Portman achieve a rare intimacy with the audience in what may be her subtlest and most beguiling performance yet. I won’t say the O word, but when she gets on stage to accept her Academy Award, I’ll be thinking of The Other Woman, not Black Swan, as the work she should be proudest of.

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