A woman’s discovery of her husband’s infidelity triggers a series of increasingly unlikely responses in writer-director Joan Carr-Wiggin’s chatty, slight “If I Were You.” It’s hard to imagine the film working at all without the commanding presence of the always versatile Marcia Gay Harden as a wife whose life is turned upside down, but whose choices tend to strain believability at every turn. If anything, that Harden shines in such a problematic starring role only reaffirms her stature, and may boost distrib and ancillary interest.
In the opening minutes, Carr-Wiggin’s script wastes no time sending wife and biz exec Madelyn (Harden) into a tizzy, as she accidentally spies hubby Paul (Joseph Kell) holding hands with younger gal Lucy (Leonor Watling) in a Toronto bistro. Madelyn’s subsequent call to Paul’s cell phone prompts him to call it quits, which then begins a succession of over-the-top reactions: Madelyn follows Lucy to her apartment and prevents Lucy from hanging herself.
From that point, conversation between the two women is ripe with irony: Lucy, a struggling actor, reveals all about the affair and takes Madelyn into her confidence, not realizing she’s Paul’s wife. Lucy then has the high-concept idea that each of them should stop making her own decisions, and instead decide for each other. This places Madelyn in the position of playing Lucy and Paul to her advantage, though this kind of Machiavellian strategy seems inconsistent with the fundamentally kind person Harden projects.
Unfortunately, for the purposes of this comedy, she must also get goofy, leading to an implausible subplot in which Madelyn accompanies Lucy to an audition for “King Lear” and somehow winds up cast in the title role. A more satisfying storyline has Madelyn visiting her Alzheimer’s-ridden mother at a long-term care facility, only to have a romantic encounter with likable Derek (Aidan Quinn).
Carr-Wiggin’s tube-style direction is better attuned to words than to images, but the chain of fairly incredible situations is simply more than the comedy can bear. Some auds may be willing to stomach the excesses, but the strain never ceases to show.
Nonetheless, Harden’s timing and responses are impeccable, allowing the viewer to observe her character thinking on her feet and gaming the situations as quickly as possible. It works as well as it does because of the actor’s highly intelligent manner: She seems constitutionally incapable of looking or sounding dumb, even when Madelyn heads in the most ridiculous directions.
The supporting cast is pitched at the level of farce, especially Watling, Gary Piquer as an obsequious type and Valerie Mahaffey as his clueless, suspicious wife. Kell barely registers, while Quinn comes off nicely in one of his lighter, more likable recent turns.
Bruce Worrall’s lensing is bright in what looks like early winter in Toronto, and other production departments are pro. Score has Italianate influences that sound out of place.