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The Wife

I’ll be right up front with you, gentle readers — I don’t know if this review is going to count for much. Of course it’s going to be negative, because it’s almost like The Wife was specifically engineered to piss me off.

Right off the bat, it’s a transparent awards grab by Glenn Close. The last time this happened, we wasted a perfectly good Best Actress nomination on Albert Nobbs. But more than that, I hate, hate, HATE it when awards recognition and critical praise are given out like goddamn participation trophies. Never mind all the far better and more groundbreaking performances from up-and-coming actors in underseen and under-rated movies that could use more good press and we’d all be richer for it. No, Meryl Streep or Glenn Close bothered to star in some shallow and pretentious vanity project, so let’s all fawn over her and add even more accolades to the pile already built up over a long and storied career. Let’s keep on rewarding these actors for who they are and all the work they’ve done over the past several decades, rather than the work they did this year or in this particular movie. FUCK. YOU. IN. THE. NECK.

Oh, and this is a marital infidelity drama? Starting Glenn Close? Wow, it’s almost like Fatal Attraction wasn’t over thirty fucking years ago!

So, yeah. I really didn’t want to see this movie. But sure enough, the awards circuit has been eating this shit up with plenty of nominations and even a few high-profile wins for Close. Also, it came back for a second run in my local multiplex, which very seldom happens. So what the hell, let’s give it a shot.

Close plays Joan Archer, the wife to an author named Joseph Castleman, played by Jonathan Pryce. And at the very beginning of the movie, we see the two of them having sex. That caught my attention. It’s not very often you see a married couple of that age in an active and loving sexual relationship. How very bold and open-minded. What’s more, it also shows us something about Joseph, hinting at his constant and perpetual lack of satisfaction. Not a bad start at all.

But then comes the phone call to inform Joseph that he’s just been selected to win the Nobel Prize for literature. This is followed by 90 minutes so utterly tedious, I couldn’t remember enough to recap them even if I wanted to. It’s just a bunch of rich old white people patting each other on the back while Joseph is acting like an entitled prick, his son (played by Max Irons, son of Jeremy) is desperate for his dad’s approval, Joan is stuck trying to rein in her husband’s ego, and cry me a fucking river because some of us have actual problems.

All we’ve got here are a bunch of boring old white people with their boring old first world problems. How am I possibly supposed to care about this man’s ennui or his libido or whatever when he just won the motherfucking Nobel Prize?! He’s a world-renowned author with a loving and beautiful family, clearly living in the kind of pristine remote home that could only be bought with a massive fortune, and I’m supposed to be emotionally invested in the marital problems he brought upon himself for no reason at all? Fuck that noise!

Incidentally, this is also a huge problem I have with marital infidelity plots: They can only work if at least one character involved is totally beyond sympathy. A huge part of why Fatal Attraction worked so well is precisely because Close and Michael Douglas dragged each other through all nine circles of hell, and there was never the least doubt that they each deserved it. But the minute we’re expected to find even an ounce of sympathy for either of the two cheaters in any given marital infidelity story — both of whom knowingly and willfully hurt someone for absolutely no good reason at all — the story’s dead in the water. There’s no coming back from that.

But here’s the good news: This isn’t your typical marital infidelity tale. Specifically, we never actually see any of our main characters cheating, and neither of our two main characters ever cheats in the actual plot. Sure, there’s a lot of marital infidelity, but all of that happens offscreen and in the backstory. We’re all but outright told that Joseph has cheated numerous times, yet he and Joan are still married, leading to the genuinely compelling question of how they could still be together.

This leads in turn to the exact nature of this particular marriage, which is easily the most compelling part of the film.

Roughly halfway through the movie (remember that, we’ll come back to it), the implication is raised that maybe Joseph isn’t really the great author everyone says he is. Indeed, there’s the possibility that maybe Joan has been writing all these literary masterpieces and letting her husband take all the credit. After all, in the misogynist ’50s and ’60s — when Joseph was really making a name for himself — it’s not like a female author would’ve gotten anywhere with any publisher or attracted any readers.

Ghostwriting is a perennial hot topic in literary circles, and we still don’t have a consistently reliable practice for sharing credit even after so many centuries of authors have collaborated on written works. Taking that subject and dovetailing it with a marriage on the rocks was a stroke of genius, especially when the husband is about to win such an extraordinary honor for the work that (maybe, possibly) wasn’t entirely done by him.

There are a lot of great discussions to be had about this. The problem is that the filmmakers take their sweet time in peeling back the central mystery of who really wrote Joseph Castleman’s work, and the question isn’t even raised until halfway in!

We never get a definite reveal or any substative discussions on the theme until the climax. Which means that the filmmakers are stuck trying to cram an entire movie’s worth of thematic material into ten freaking minutes. And then the climax is resolved in the fastest, easiest, most predictable manner that perfectly resolves everything with zero room for nuance. Such a damn shame.

That climax is the only noteworthy scene in the whole movie. Ten glorious minutes when Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close finally get to earn their paychecks and bring the house down. Throughout the rest of the movie, there’s absolutely nothing in here that either of these actors couldn’t do in their sleep, and most certainly haven’t done in better movies already. Am I seriously supposed to believe that Glenn Close turned in better work here than Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give, KiKi Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk, any of the leads in Widows, or even Lady Gaga in A Star is Born (2018)? Fuck outta here.

I was honestly far more impressed with Annie Starke, here playing an absolute dead ringer for a young Glenn Close (incidentally her actual mother, which I’m sure was a great help). Her performance is positively uncanny, and she turns in far more dynamic work with the material she’s given. Likewise, Harry Lloyd was far more passionate and engaging as a young Jonathan Pryce than Pryce himself ever was.

That said, this is still a story in which Joseph is the charismatic college professor who cheats on his wife with one of his students (that would be Joan). I’m not going to pretend that college professors and their students don’t ever fall in love — hell, one of my own former teachers fell in love with an old student and they’re doing great, God bless them and their kids. But to see it treated as a commonplace and cliched occurrence, or like any decent college wouldn’t have protocols in place for such a scenario, and to see it fetishized like this… Yeah, that’s another thing that gets on my nerves.

As for the supporting cast, there’s nothing of note. Christian Slater plays an author lobbying to write Joseph’s biography, and of course you don’t cast Christian freaking Slater to play a character with any ounce of sympathy. Max Irons is even worse — his character is such a miserable, mopey, explosive bundle of daddy issues that I loathed every second he had onscreen. 

On a few miscellaneous notes, there are some nicely effective close-ups. I’ll say this for Pryce and Close, they sell the close-up shots beautifully. I was also fond of the sound design, which had some neat flourishes in places. The cracking of a freshly opened book comes to mind.

I don’t want to waste a lot more time on The Wife, because who the fuck are we kidding? Nobody’s going to care about this movie in a year, and nobody will remember the first thing about it when Oscar season is over. It’s just a bunch of melodramatic tedium with ten solid minutes out of a hundred, just enough for a good awards clip. There are admittedly some solid ideas in here, and Annie Starke deserves way better than to be kept in her mother’s shadow, but anything really good about this movie got buried in the climax and we have to sort through so much bullshit to get to it.

Only awards completionists need apply. Everyone else, steer clear.

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