A Good Woman

"Some women bring happiness wherever they go; some, whenever they go."

A Good Woman is a collection of oh-so-very-Wildean quips and sarcasm, stuffed into a serviceable story whether appropriate there or not, and directed with questionable skill. There is even a character whose sole function seems to be to deliver Wilde’s incomparable bits of wisdom, and sometimes repeat Voltaire’s (“Anything too stupid to be said is sung.”). It’s brief, frivolous, and extremely entertaining even as some of it seems forced, and the film lacks the elegance of Wilde’s wordplay.

The temptation is to call this Helen Hunt’s comeback (her last role was in Woody Allen’s Curse of the Jade Scorpion back in 2001), but then you realize that the film has sat on the shelf for over a year. Regardless, it’s good to see her back. The casting — she plays an American woman well-known for her unscrupulous homewrecking — could hardly be more perfect, and Hunt beautifully portrays Mrs. Erlynn as a shrewd woman content to let her reputation precede her and reap the benefits.

As the film opens, we see her try to negotiate a restaurant bill having found that the various men’s credit accounts she is accustomed to charging have been cut off. After making the immortal observation that “some women bring happiness wherever they go; some, whenever they go,” Mrs. Erlynn heads to Italy, hoping for better luck, or at least a fresh start.

Her misadventures in Europe are a little klutzy, vacillating between light, gossipy, more typically Wildean comedy of manners stuff and more serious social commentary that reminded me of House of Mirth. The film features any number of game performances, from Scarlett Johansson’s (whose newfound popularity is most likely the reason that A Good Woman is no longer sitting on the shelf) to the incomparable Tom Wilkinson’s, but they are not well-served by the film’s knowing, self-conscious “light-heartedness,” which often seems to invade the story rather than complementing it.

The melodrama proper is solid, however, and when substance is considered over form, the movie works. I won’t reveal the thrust of the plot as I didn’t realize what it was until roughly halfway through (in hindsight, I think it was hinted at earlier and I missed it), but it’s a potent dramatic hook, and the characters are vivid enough to support it. I liked it enough for the ending, which is cheesy and inevitable to pack a real punch; it also contains the one scene — the last one between Hunt and Johansson in which the humor and the pathos work together and not against each other.

Most unfortunate, perhaps, are the times that rudimentary technical competence fails director Mike Barker. If the script was poorly modulated to begin with, its realization compounds the problem. There is a crucial scene late in the film between Johansson’s Mrs. Windermere and Lord Darlington (Bright Young Thing‘s Stephen Campbell Moore) that is poorly a) staged, b) framed, c) scored, d) ended, and it is, you can imagine, disruptive.

To the extent that Oscar Wilde adaptations have limited appeal in the market, A Good Woman has little chance of becoming a crossover hit — it’s not really good enough. But by the same token, to the extent that you enjoy Wilde’s writing and plotting, this uneven version of one of his most popular works (Lady Windermere’s Fan) is as entertaining as you would expect.

-- Eugene Novikov

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