Say Donald Trump was a film critic. Hmm, delicious, isn't it, to imagine him doing anything other than what he actually does? Let's pause to relish the fantasy of him at the movies with a notepad on his thigh. The final, anticlimactic scenes of The Wife have just concluded, and the lights are bright. For a moment, he doesn't move. He sits like a human adding machine, tabulating, processing. Then he touches the tip of his pen to the pad. What does he write? I imagine something like:
"The failing New York Times has called this film 'an intelligent screen drama that unfolds with real juice and suspense.' NO WAY! WOW! SO SAD. Just the fake news media lying to the American people again. The Wife — not good! BAD!"
Wasn't that merry? But back to reality. While our tangerine-topped belletrist may not have had much in the way of style, he nonetheless had a point. Nearly every syllable in the Times review is nonsense.
The Wife is the story of a blowhard who's just won the Nobel Prize in Literature and his grimly sphinxlike better half. Joe Castleman is played by Jonathan Pryce, Joan by Glenn Close, whose performance is generating Oscar buzz from pundits stir-crazy for awards season. The film, directed by Björn Runge (Daybreak), was adapted by Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer's 2003 novel. And that's where things went south.
Wolitzer's book offered a knowing, wickedly funny take on the old boys' club that was postwar 20th-century literature. Her mother was a novelist and, growing up, Wolitzer noted how female writers were treated as second-class citizens of the culture. She channeled her displeasure into the character of Joan, conveying her experience through a first-person narrative enlivened with biting insight and devilish wit. All traces of which the screenwriter excised.
Anderson wrote her first draft in 2004. Twenty-plus revisions later, Joan survives as a soured husk of her original self. No inner monologue. No devilish wit. No fun. Worse, she's stuck in a tale of domestic rivalry that's meant to play as subversive but never rises above silly.
The audience isn't expected to notice. Not with the talk of literary lions, the opulence of the Stockholm setting or the preparations for the king's presentation. Everything's so high-toned and important that viewers clearly are supposed to think Merchant Ivory, when, beneath the tuxes and tiaras, this is closer to a second-rate soap.
Movie critic law prohibits my spoiling the incredibly cretinous twist around which the entire melodrama revolves (though it's detailed in reviews by critical scofflaws). I can say that next to this film's premise, that of The Predator seems entirely plausible.
What are the odds of a guy bright enough to snag the world's top writing prize not having a single interesting thing to say over 100 minutes? Or of his wife — who had literary aspirations in her youth and may have played a greater role in her husband's success than suspected — not coming up with more than a couple of her own? Whom are we supposed to care about here — Christian Slater's dirt-seeking biographer? Max Irons' approval-seeking son? They're hackneyed cartoons concocted and tacked on by Anderson.
Don't get sucked in by this picture's presumption of significance. It has about as much to say about literature as an episode of "90 Day Fiancé." The more you know the Castlemans, believe me, the more you'll feel like writing them off.