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.