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The miscasting is mightier than the engaging storyline
on November 20, 2006
I really went back and forth with this film. In the end, though, I just couldn't get past the fact that even a good script based on the work of a literary genius like Oscar Wilde just can't overcome the deleterious effects of problematic acting. I can't bring myself to say bad acting because I think Scarlett Johansson is a very good actress and -- while I don't really care for her -- Helen Hunt is as well. Neither was very good in One Good Woman, however. The blame must really fall on the director and casting director, though, as neither actress really belonged in this film. Helen Hunt may well have tried too hard to fill the role of the adventuress, man-chasing Mrs. Erlynne, resulting in a slow and careful (sometimes stultifying) delivery of dialogue that gives rise to no feeling or charisma whatsoever. With very little charm at her disposal, it becomes difficult to believe that so many men fall so easily under her spell. As for Johansson, she seems totally out of her element here, clearly uncomfortable throughout many a scene. Fortunately, Tom Wilkinson and the fellows I affectionately call "the old geezers" come bearing the quick wit and natural bearing called for in this type of satirical treatment. That allows the script to shine in places, thereby saving the whole project from disaster.
Clearly, this film takes many a liberty with Oscar Wilde's classic drama Lady Windermere's Fan, yet it still wields quite an impressive sword of satirical wit here and there in the script. The story is basically an attack on the hypocrisies of gossip vis-à-vis high society, something Wilde knew quite a bit about. Lady Meg Windermere (Scarlett Johansson) is a young newlywed living in idyllic bliss with her husband Robert. Wealthy, attractive, and well-to-do, she thinks she has the perfect marriage to a man she trusts implicitly. Then Mrs. Erlynne shows up, having left New York rather hastily, courtesy of several wives anxious to see her depart from their husbands' lives. Mrs. Erlynne has always relied (and indeed prospered mightily) on the kindness of strange men, earning her quite a reputation in 1930s America and, rather quickly, Italy. She and Robert Windermere are soon the hot topic of local gossip, with nosy well-to-do women tracking their private meetings and going quite apoplectic about it to one another. When word finally filters down to her, Meg is quite stunned and contemplates some rather rash action of her own. Meanwhile, dear old Tuppy (Wilkinson), a man with his own share of past social indelicacies, quite falls for Mrs. Erlynne and proposes marriage -- to the chagrin of all his marriage-hating buddies. These are the lovable "old geezers" I was talking about, and they constantly delight the viewer with short, stinging, and remarkably witty complaints about the institution of marriage.
I won't attempt to chronicle the shifting layers of this film, for the plot takes a number of delicious turns along the way. The plot's solid, as is the writing. Indeed, I would sometimes find myself pulled into the story rather engagingly, but the magic always departed once Hunt and/or Johansson turned up for a more serious scene. That proves to be too much for this film to overcome. Yes, it's always a treat to reexplore Victorian sensibilities (even if they're arbitrarily shifted to 1930s Italy), but A Good Woman never exhibits the first sign of life or energy, plodding its way through a story that could have and should have been much more enjoyable.