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February 17, 2006

A Good Woman is hard to find in this bloodless Oscar Wilde adaptation

Like its title, A Good Woman is passably interesting, but not quite poetic. Based on the Oscar Wilde play Lady Windermere’s Fan, it shares quite a lot with the rest of Wilde’s work. It has many witty quotations that will send you scrambling for a pencil, but not much substance that you will remember a few days later.

Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest has worked as a movie twice, in 1952 and 2002. Earnest, however, has better source material, and both films featured actors who brought energy to somewhat tired situation comedy.

A Good Woman is more sentimental. It expects us to smile at its humor and ridiculous plot twists, which we do, but then tear up a little at its happy ending, which we do not. The story is just too silly to be much of anything beyond light farce. It follows Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt, recently absent from the big screen), a world-class hustler who seems to have played “the other woman” to every important man in America.

In an early scene, we witness her trying to negotiate the bill in a restaurant that is teeming with her suitors’ wives. Having worn out her welcome, she sets sail for Italy—and sets her sights on Robert Windermere (a thoroughly bland Mark Umbers), a wealthy young man who just happens to be married to Meg (Scarlett Johansson).

Let us take a moment to discuss the most worthy of topics, the lovely Miss Scarlett. When she so chooses, Scarlett can smolder. She has made a career out of playing the other woman. There is a reason for this. We understand without much thought why she makes Vermeer’s wife nervous in Girl with a Pearl Earring, why she is tempting to Bob Harris in Lost in Translation, and definitely why Chris Wilton chooses her in Match Point. She is miscast here as a quiet woman who suspects her husband of cheating. There is too little chance for her patented brand of sparks to fly. In those other roles, she was repressed, but in A Good Woman, we do not get the sense that she would be any different without the repression. Even in vengeance, Meg is subdued and unexciting.

Helen Hunt also feels a little out of place. America loves her because she is good at smiling and looking a little uncomfortable at the same time during humorously awkward situations. However, she always seems to be walking with a safety net—never quite throwing herself into a scene. Mrs. Erlynne is not an easy role to play. It requires a siren with a hidden heart of gold. Hunt tips her hand from the start, making her early misdeeds unbelievable and her later penance predictable.

In Italy, Mrs. Erlynne runs into a wealthy man named Tuppy, embodied to perfection by Tom Wilkinson. Three times divorced, Tuppy is no fool in love. He understands that at this point, women are after his money. Wilkinson makes this old fogey quite personable, without ever descending into the melodrama that eventually surrounds him. He is accompanied by the film’s most unadulterated charms, Cecil (Roger Hammond) and Dumby (John Standing), who seem to do little more than sit around and make droll commentary on life. They understand what Oscar Wilde is all about, even if Wilde himself may not have.

All these characters stew together for a while before plunging into a great number of plot contrivances to land them exactly where we want them to land. The game is most fun when its mechanics are given the least priority. There are plenty of enjoyable sequences that do little more than poke fun at gossipy aristocrats and unstable marriages. But then the plot machinery pops out to pull the characters through a series of uninteresting hoops. The movie starts with a satire on love, only to end with an unequivocal endorsement of it.