You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits

Natalie Portman delivers an utterly fearless performance in as a bitter, borderline unlikable home-wrecker.

Emilia - Natalie Portman Jack - Scott Cohen William - Charlie Tahan Mindy - Lauren Ambrose Carolyn - Lisa Kudrow Sheldon - Michael Cristofer Laura - Debra Monk Pia - Elizabeth Marvel Simon - Anthony Rapp

Natalie Portman delivers an utterly fearless performance in “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” playing a bitter, borderline unlikable Manhattan home-wrecker subsumed by grief over the death of her infant daughter. As in his three earlier features, writer-director Don Roos (“Happy Endings”) relishes true-to-life emotional complications, to the point of sacrificing both narrative cleanliness and universal appeal. Unsparing in its microscopic inspection of damaged characters, including Lisa Kudrow’s comically angry, wronged wife, “Love” tests the limits of a viewer’s tolerance for pain and should garner significant respect from those who like their upscale melodrama on the lacerating side.

Among Roos’ many rewarding gambits is his repeated use of flashbacks to the courtship of Emilia (Portman), a young law clerk, and Jack (Scott Cohen), an attorney who eventually leaves his wife, Carolyn (Kudrow), to be with her. Expertly handled and psychologically astute, the film’s before-and-after juxtapositions allow the couple’s days of imminently destructive flirtation to look like bliss, compared with the anguish that accompanies their every strained interaction in the present day.

A Harvard Law School grad and self-described “second wife,” Emilia is hurting not only from the sudden death of her and Jack’s newborn baby, but from the loss of countless other relationships, due to her unfortunate tendency to repel those she wants to hold close. In a hasty attempt to bond with her 8-year-old stepson, William (Charlie Tahan), Emilia buys the lactose-intolerant boy a jumbo-sized ice cream sundae — a mistake that literally comes back to haunt her. Even messier is Emilia’s unforgiving relationship with her philandering father (Michael Cristofer), a Westchester judge.

Gradually Roos drops the flashbacks altogether, and we’re left with a portrait of narcissistic New York bourgeois to rival the harshest work of Woody Allen. The revelation that Emilia, at times like an open wound, believes she may have been responsible for her baby’s death is characteristic of Roos’s tendency to explain rather than exonerate his characters for their bottomless shortcomings. By the end, the film does provide Emilia some measure of recovery, but it’s believably hard-fought over a nearly two-hour running time.

In his screenplay, adapted from a novel by Ayelet Waldman, Roos walks a tightrope between commercial obligation and emotional realism, favoring the latter. A brief scene in which Emilia and her mother disagree about the merits of the movie they’ve just seen — the younger woman objecting to cliched characters such as the “gay best friend” — plays like the director’s cheeky acknowledgement of the rules he both breaks and, occasionally, adopts. (Emilia herself has a gay best friend, charmingly played by Anthony Rapp.)

In her strongest screen work since “Closer,” Portman, appearing in every scene, often a touch disheveled, dares to inhabit a character who’s more comfortable expressing resentment than love, and who seems temperamentally incapable of achieving grace even or especially when she tries for it. Portman’s decision to show us tiny glimpses of Emilia’s yearning for acceptance by those around her, harmful though it may be, is what tips the scale on the character, making her ever so slightly redeemable to both Roos and the viewer.

As the condescending, controlling husband, Cohen follows suit in scenes of marital conflict that make it equally tough for the audience to take Jack’s side. Kudrow naturally draws laughs in her scenes, but her performance is likewise premised on emotional abrasion. As Emilia’s none-too-close friend Mindy, Lauren Ambrose registers some authentic moments of shock at Emilia’s capacity to spoil a mood.

Across the board, tech credits are exceptional. The widescreen lensing of d.p. Steve Yedlin (“The Brothers Bloom”) makes the moneyed Upper East and West Sides look both attractive and somewhat oppressive, in keeping with the film’s implicit critique of the characters’ privileged lifestyle. Editor David Codron achieves the maximum poignancy from Roos’s then-and-now structure, while pop songs by the likes of Belle and Sebastian and the Flaming Lips accentuate the movie’s pervasive sense of melancholy.

Popular on Variety

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits

Production: An Incentive Filmed Entertainment presentation of a Marc Platt production, in association with Is or Isn't Entertainment, Handsome Charlie Films. (International sales: Incentive, Los Angeles.) Produced by Platt, Carol Cuddy. Executive producers, Abby Wolf-Weiss, Natalie Portman, Rena Ronson, Cassian Elwes, Dan Bucatinsky, Lisa Kudrow. Co-producers, Joseph Reidy, Annette Savitch. Directed, written by Don Roos, from the book by Ayelet Waldman.

Crew: Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Steve Yedlin; editor, David Codron; music, John Swihart; music supervisor, Joel C. High; production designer, Michael Shaw; art director, Nithya Shrinivasan; set decorator, Carol Silverman; costume designer, Peggy Schnitzer; sound (Dolby Digital), Jeff Pullman; supervising sound editors, Barney Cabral, Perry Robertson; digital visual effects, Danny Albano, Trey Freeman; assistant director, Joseph Reidy; casting, Bernard Telsey. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 11, 2009. Running time: 119 MIN.

With: Emilia - Natalie Portman Jack - Scott Cohen William - Charlie Tahan Mindy - Lauren Ambrose Carolyn - Lisa Kudrow Sheldon - Michael Cristofer Laura - Debra Monk Pia - Elizabeth Marvel Simon - Anthony Rapp

More Film

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Racks Up Solid $33 Million Debut, 'Goldfinch' Bombs

    “Hustlers” rolled in the Benjamins this weekend, collecting $33.2 million when it debuted in 3,250 North American theaters. Boosted by rave reviews and stellar word of mouth, “Hustlers” beat expectations and now ranks as the best start for an STX film, along with the biggest live-action opening weekend for stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. [...]

  • German Cinema Is Diverse, But Is

    German Cinema Is Varied, But Is It Too Risk Averse?

    One of the strengths of German cinema is its diversity, says Simone Baumann, managing director of the national film promotion agency German Films. As well as the three films at Toronto directed by female German helmers, there was also German filmmaker Thomas Heise’s documentary film essay “Heimat Is a Space in Time.” Then there were [...]

  • Female Filmmakers in Germany Make Progress

    Female Filmmakers Surge Forward in Germany, But Still Face Obstacles

    Four feature films by German filmmakers screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and three of them were directed by women – Angela Schanelec’s “I Was at Home, But…,” winner of the Berlinale’s best director prize, Ina Weisse’s “The Audition,” and Katrin Gebbe’s “Pelican Blood,” the latter two both starring Nina Hoss. Germany’s Oscar entry this [...]

  • Bull

    Annie Silverstein's 'Bull' Takes Top Awards, Robert Pattinson Starrer 'The Lighthouse' Wins Jury Prize at Deauville

    Annie Silverstein’s feature debut “Bull” swept three awards at the 45th Deauville American Film Festival, including the Grand Prize, the Revelation Prize for best first film and the Critics’ Prize. “Bull,” a portrait of a rebellious teenage girl from South Texas, world premiered at Cannes’s Un Certain Regard and marks Silverstein’s follow up to her [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez's 'Criminal' Striptease: How 'Hustlers' Landed the Fiona Apple Hit

    Contrary to what you might be expecting, the number of songs by Jennifer Lopez, Lizzo and Cardi B in “Hustlers,” their newly released acting vehicle, adds up to … zero. Meanwhile, the standout music sync in a movie that’s full of them belongs to no less likely a choice than Fiona Apple. The scene in [...]

  • Game of Thrones Season 8

    'Game of Thrones,' 'Avengers' Win Big at 45th Annual Saturn Awards

    As Jamie Lee Curtis picked up her first trophy ever at the 45th Annual Saturn Awards Friday night, she had a good luck charm on her arm: former manager Chuck Binder, whom she said was the reason she became an actor. “I was in college and had no thought of being an actor,” Curtis told [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content