An ensemble of four fine actors enrich Tom Noonan’s “The Wife,” a bizarre, often provocative seriocomic dissection of marriage as a fragile yet almost universal institution. Follow-up to Noonan’s impressive feature debut, “What Happened Was,” which won last year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize, is more ambitious but not as dramatically tight or emotionally satisfying. Prospects for theatrical release are good for a stylish art film that may be too demanding of its viewers without providing the expected rewards.
In narrative structure, but decidedly not in tone, “The Wife” bears resemblance to Mike Nichols'”Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as it juxtaposes two middle-aged married couples, neither particularly happy, balanced or stable.
Tale begins with the sudden arrival of Cosmo (Wallace Shawn) and Arlie (Karen Young) at the house of Jack (Noonan) and Rita (Julie Hagerty), a team of New Age therapists, just as they are about to have dinner. The guests’ presence immediately increases the already-existing tension between the hosts, as Cosmo is their patient and Arlie’s conduct is erratically untamed. It takes some time for the story to get going, as writer/director Noonan is so concerned with concealing the script’s theatrical origins that he uses all kinds of cinematic devices that may be original but also prevent the audience from getting involved in the drama.
It appears that Rita, who works with hubby, wants to be closer to him, but he pulls away from her. It’s also clear that Cosmo is not comfortable with his marriage and is more than a bit embarrassed by Arlie’s wildly unstable conduct.
Central dramatic piece is a lengthy dinner sequence in which the quartet tries to engage in superficial chitchat, though soon each person is led to reveal some dark matrimonial secrets — past and present — despite Rita’s initial protest that it’s “unprofessional” to socialize with a patient.
The most disturbing monologue, which is beautifully delivered by Young, comes from Arlie as she reconstructs her first meeting with the childlike, insecure Cosmo. “I’m his little mommy and he’s my little baby,” says Arlie, forcing her confounded husband to confide that he’s experiencing a rather late sexual awakening, finding himself attracted to “all these girls on the street.”
Problem is that writer Noonan spends so much time laying the ground for the emotional outbursts that when they finally occur they are not all that surprising — or distressing.
Fortunately, script’s shortcomings are overcome by a beautifully accomplished production, supervised by the same team that collaborated on “What Happened Was.” Most notable are Joe DeSalvo’s precise lensing and Dan Quellette’s luminous design. At times, however, the style gets obtrusive: Crucial monologues are conveyed through the reflection of the actors’ faces in wine glasses.
It’s to Noonan’s credit that he writes such wonderfully intricate roles for women — no minor feat for a male filmmaker. Under his guidance, the whole cast rises to the occasion. Young gives the most inspired and touching performance as the uneducated wife, determined to make her marriage work even as she’s despised by her husband and his intellectually pretentious therapists.
Hagerty, still best known for her comedies, also constructs an intriguing portrait of a troubled, emotionally manipulated wife. Shawn tackles one of his most demanding roles, one calling for frequent mood changes, sudden bursts of tears and laughter. That Noonan is less impressive may be a function of his generosity as a director and also a result of playing a less sympathetic part.
An emotionally resonant film for thinking viewers, “The Wife” doesn’t even pretend to understand the mystique of marriage, let alone resolve its characters’ dilemmas. Noonan should be commended for pic’s rich texture, mixing effectively poetic realism with a touch of Pinter’s sardonic humor.