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Sunday, February 10, 2019

OSCARS 2019: The Wife (2018)

The “make-up award” is a concept that the Oscars is no stranger to. Academy voters are an impulsive lot, often favoring hot newcomers even when more experienced actors gave superior performances. Eager to recognize these oversights, or perhaps realizing they had made a mistake, those other performers will get Oscars later in their career for more minor roles. This is how Al Pacino won an Oscar for hoo-ha-ing his way through “Scent of a Woman.” (This habit also ends up snubbing actually deserving nominees in those years, causing further make-up awards to come into existence down the line. A vicious cycle...) We are looking at another potential upset of that order this year. Glenn Close, generally considered among the greatest actresses of her generation, has received eleven Oscar nominations but no wins. Some are speculating that her latest film, “The Wife,” may finally get Close an Oscar. Which is a neat trick for a movie most people hadn't even heard of before the nominations started rolling in.

In 1992, critically acclaimed author Joseph Castleman gets a phone call: He has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. His long time wife, Joan, seems happy... But there's something else she's feeling. The couple is flown to Sweden, along with their resentful son David. There, Joan spies Joseph attempting to seduce a photographer, the latest in a long line of mistresses. She's pursued by Nathaniel Boone, an author who has been tempting to write a biography of Joseph for years. He has a startling theory: That Joseph is not the author of his award winning books. That Joan has secretly been behind these stories all along.

Like most people, I imagine, I went into “The Wife” knowing nothing about it. The movie slowly reveals what it's actually about. The flashback-heavy structure cuts between Joan and Joseph's modern life and how they first met, when she was a college student hungry for recognition and he was a young professor with a splintering marriage. For a while, you imagine “The Wife” is going to be a simple drama about the resentment that boils up in a long relationship. Joan ignores and accepts Joseph's various affairs. After a speaker in her youth convinced her that fiction written by women isn't read, she deferred her own dreams to support her husbands. When taken on this level, “The Wife” is a solid enough picture, showing how dreams are revised and compromise slowly seeps the love out of even the strongest relationship. (Even if this results in the film's most underdeveloped subplot, about their bratty younger son.)

Once the big plot reveal comes, a large deal of intrigue enters “The Wife.” And it can't help but feel hopelessly unnatural. Frankly, it stretches belief that a deception of this order could go all the way to the Nobel Prize. Especially when a journalist uncovers the truth by looking into documents that are apparently totally public. “The Wife” signals this shift with some further melodramatics. Out of nowhere, Joan asks for a divorce. What results is a ridiculous screaming match between husband and wife that drains all the subtly out of the material. All the interesting tension that was just beneath the surface boils over through a profane shouting match. From there, “The Wife” shambles towards a blunt and sudden conclusion.

Of course, the actual quality of “The Wife” seems almost besides the point. This is an actor's film, first and foremost. Yes, Glenn Close is excellent throughout most of the movie. She happily smiles and nods while her husband receives these honors. Her annoyance grows quietly, Close never overdoing it or signaling the plot twist to come. (Not until that screaming match starts anyway.) Yet the two have their happy moments too, like when they playfully jump on the bed after getting the news. Or during the opening scene, where an attempted love-making session is interrupted. It must be said that Jonathan Pryce is also pretty good as Joshua, whose veneer of pseudo-intellectualism slips further as the film goes on. And, hey, Christian Slater shows up too, as the nosy biographer. Always nice to see him in an above-ground feature for once.

If Glenn Close wins the Oscar for “The Wife,” would that be a deserving outcome? I mean, probably not? Close is very good in the film, though it's certainly not a career-best performance from her. The film itself starts out fairly strongly before largely collapsing in its last third. Despite being a movie about writers, its script is pretty sloppy. A subplot about Joan and Joseph's daughter giving birth contributes nothing. This isn't the only moment in the film that seems to adds little to the actual story. Still, the movie does have its moment and the acting is quite good. That counts for a lot, I suppose. [6/10]

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