Cameron Diaz plays the cool, brittle yin to Leslie Mann’s weepy, whiny yang in “The Other Woman,” an ungainly, often flat-footed yet weirdly compelling romantic dramedy about two gals who become unlikely best friends when they realize they’re being screwed (literally) by the same man. Like a watered-down “Diabolique” or a younger-skewing “First Wives Club,” this latest mainstream rebound from director Nick Cassavetes (after his dead-on-arrival 2012 indie “Yellow”) taps into the pleasures of sisterly solidarity and righteous revenge: Beneath the wobbly pratfalls and the scatological setpieces, there’s no denying the film’s mean-spirited kick, or its more-than-passing interest in what makes its women tick. These qualities should stand the slickly packaged Fox release in good stead with always-underserved female viewers as another superhero-filled summer gets under way.
High-powered New York attorney Carly Whitten (Diaz) doesn’t suffer fools gladly or take dating too seriously, so it’s clearly a big deal when she makes it to eight weeks with a handsome businessman who goes by the none-too-subtle name of Mark King (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). But Carly’s suspicion that the relationship might be too good to be true turns out to be well founded: Dropping by to surprise him one night at his home in Connecticut, she instead has an awkward first encounter with Kate (Mann), who she’s shocked to learn is Mark’s wife.
Furious and disgusted, but also calm and practical, Carly immediately resolves to dump Mark and move on. But Kate isn’t quite so ready to sever ties with her husband’s unwitting mistress: Over the next few days, she turns up at Carly’s law firm — and later, her apartment — in various states of inebriated distress, longing for details about Mark and Carly’s sexual habits, as well as advice on how to proceed. While Carly initially recoils from Kate’s extreme neediness and insecurity, it’s not long before the desperate housewife and the put-together career woman realize they have more in common than they thought, bonding over their loneliness, their mutual loathing for the man who brought them together and, inevitably, their desire for payback.
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Things get kicked up a notch when Kate and Carly, tailing Mark on one of his many weekend “business trips” (to the tune of Lalo Schifrin’s “Mission: Impossible” theme), find out that the cad has yet another mistress on layaway: Amber (Kate Upton), a young blonde bombshell who’s introduced running on the beach in slo-mo oglevision. In a development that works better onscreen than it sounds on paper, Amber turns out to be sweet and wholly sympathetic, if mildly ditzy, and she happily joins Kate and Carly’s vengeful sisterhood. Observing all this from the sidelines, meanwhile, is Kate’s sensitive, good-looking brother Phil (Taylor Kinney), who serves as not only a convenient new love interest for Carly, but also the movie’s token acknowledgment that not all men are lying, cheating scumbuckets.
For that matter, there’s room to argue over whether “The Other Woman” (the first-produced screenplay by Melissa K. Stack, whose “I Want to F— Your Sister” landed on the 2007 Black List) is ultimately a femme-empowering celebration of decency and monogamy, or a hopelessly retrograde portrait of scheming, backbiting women incapable of defining themselves apart from a man, even if it’s a man they happen to despise. Certainly there’s something queasy-making, even sadistic, about the increasingly juvenile shenanigans that take over the movie’s second half as Carly, Kate and Amber effectively drop a series of anvils on Mark’s head — whether they’re slipping him laxatives and estrogen tablets, or investigating the offshore bank accounts where he’s stashed away an ill-gotten fortune.
As it winds its way toward an unexpectedly grisly final showdown, “The Other Woman” often feels stranded between gross-out comedy, romantic fantasy and distaff psychodrama in a way that compels fascination and impatience alike. The film’s structure and pacing feel haphazard at best, the musical choices clumsily tacked on, the raunchy elements weak and unnecessary (and likely compromised by the film’s downgrading from an R rating to a PG-13). One moment we’re in the Bahamas, admiring the beachfront scenery as lensed by d.p. Robert Fraisse; the next we’re in a toilet stall, watching (and worse, listening) as a character noisily evacuates his bowels. Similarly, there are moments when Cassavetes seems to be operating on Hollywood-hack autopilot, and others when you can almost feel him nudging the production in the sort of rougher, more offbeat character-driven direction that his famous father, John, might well have encouraged.
This unevenness has become perhaps Cassavetes’ defining aspect as a filmmaker, evident in his unpredictable choice of material (“The Notebook,” “Alpha Dog,” “My Sister’s Keeper”) and in the curious jumble of moods and styles he achieves with almost every picture. Indeed, it’s this sense of tonal clash that largely distinguishes “The Other Woman,” which feels like a movie productively at war with itself, taking its cues from the temperaments of its two central characters: It’s lurching and volatile one minute, judgmental and calculating the next. And it’s a testament to the actresses involved that we emerge with an appreciably strong sense of who their characters are.
Her nerve endings almost continually exposed, her mouth running like crazy, Mann at first seems to be channeling the ball-busting housewife she played in “Knocked Up” and “This Is 40,” but she swiftly establishes Kate as a very different creature — warm and compassionate, and genuinely torn over whether to salvage or further sabotage her marriage. As ever, Mann’s ability to seem perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown can be maddening, even mannered, and “The Other Woman” needs every drop of cool, cynical detachment it can wring from Diaz’s performance. Having memorably embraced her inner rebel in recent projects like “Bad Teacher” and “The Counselor,” Diaz (who starred in Cassavetes’ “My Sister’s Keeper”)is in fine, nuanced form here, stepping into the heels of a strong-willed, successful working woman without reducing her to a one-note shrew.
Model-turned-actress Upton (“The Three Stooges,” “Tower Heist”) holds her own in a likable if limited role, and Coster-Waldau is game enough as the most (only) hated figure onscreen. Rapper-songstress Nicki Minaj makes her live-action thesping debut as Carly’s saucy assistant, while Don Johnson has a few choice scenes as Carly’s father. Several stray references to Chinese culture, including a particularly random, teary-eyed defense of feng shui from Kate, feel sufficiently jarring as to suggest a half-hearted attempt to woo the all-important Asian market.