Predictable, contrived 'The Wife' needs a rewrite
“The Wife” seems to think that if it takes itself seriously enough, viewers will too and not notice the gaping holes that undermine most if not all of its points about relationships and repression. No dice. This drama, adapted from the novel by Meg Wolitzer, is as flimsy as the marriage it depicts.
In a very good performance as an ultimately very frustrating and problematic character, Glenn Close stars as Joan Castleman, who has spent decades in the shadow of her husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce), a renowned author who, as the movie begins in 1992 Connecticut, is just finding out that he has won the Nobel Prize for literature. “I won the Nobel! La la la la, I won the Nobel!” Joe sings childishly as he and his wife jump on their bed. It is a callback to their younger days but one of many moments that, when all has been revealed after a twist that most should see coming well in advance, strains credibility to the point of where the issue no longer seems to be a system but a single-minded individual. As a result, the movie only broadly comments on what a person will endure to achieve something otherwise unobtainable to them rather than exploring how they get through the emotional and psychological burdens involved.
That includes but is certainly not limited to the sense that Joe has been a tiresome and small man for many years. Not at the beginning of their courtship, of course, when he was a handsome professor for whom Joan (played as a college student by Close’s daughter, Annie Starke) not so secretly pines. (Joe’s inappropriate flirting and aligning himself with his student rather than his wife at the time rings truer than Joan confessing her love for her teacher to his infant for whom she is babysitting.) He is self-involved in conversation and in the bedroom, and his efforts to direct attention and gratitude to Joan in social settings obviously lands with a thud, at best. Close wears Joan’s resentment like a vest donned before receiving X-rays, light to the eye but heavy on the person underneath it. She makes sure Joe has no crumbs in his beard and lends warmth to their son David (Max Irons, mostly just asked to pout), an aspiring writer who gets shrugged off by dad if he gets any attention at all. Meanwhile, she reminds Joe to take his pills, not-so-jokingly says he is a narcissistic bastard and tries not to explode when her husband perks up any time he is around another woman he finds attractive, which is frequently.
There, though, is one of several ways in which “The Wife” takes the easiest route out of what should be a far richer scenario. Joe’s indiscretions are apparently public knowledge; Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a writer who says he has been hired to pen Joe’s biography, acknowledges as such, and in a tense and contrived exchange with Joan at a bar in Stockholm, astutely recognizes that the unfaithful genius archetype is appalling, not charming. More importantly, though, it is impossible not to wonder how Joan has lived with Joe’s questionable qualities as a husband for all this time, and a late reference to his manner of apologizing and rubbing his wife’s back hardly suffices. Of course, the answer is supposedly propped up by the film’s big gotcha, which is foreshadowed far too many times and never really unpacked. Without giving anything away, it can be said that several decades of deception and frustration surely would have boiled over in a public and accidental fashion at some point (especially considering Joe’s apparently thin grasp of his past work), but “The Wife” refuses to explore the significant points through Joe and Joan’s story that really would bring depth to the fact that, despite or perhaps because of what is being hidden, they remain together.
The movie also does not deserve to be hailed as a piece of the “Me Too” conversation considering its tendency, in the hands of writer Jane Anderson and Bjorn Runge, to suggest all women respond positively to Joe no matter what. What a different and far more compelling story would unfold if his advances on a photographer (Karin Franz Korlof) tasked with following around the award-winner were rejected as harassment, and the Nobel committee were perhaps forced to re-examine the person they were honoring. It would do a lot more to give women a voice considering how much screen time is devoted to presenting the publishing world as a boys’ club, and that even a woman with the opportunity to publish and give public readings would only experience anger and heartbreak in a world that needs a male name on the cover.
The fundamental ideas of “The Wife” certainly remain trenchant, and not just because another movie about a frustrated wife in a literary pair opened later in 2018 (“Colette,” starring Keira Knightley). The real world still has a long way to go in seeing creative work without a gender-based lens of where it originated. Close, for her part, gives meaning to even the way Joan swallows, and the film, when not leaning on tin-eared dialogue like, “Please don’t paint me as a victim, I am much more interesting than that,” does not hold back in presenting the weight on this woman’s shoulders as her husband floats through life and does more to increase her pain than alleviate it. (Note how she barely acknowledges her husband’s brief suggestions of playful fantasy; she has heard it before and is no longer impressed.) Movies about writers seem to come out on a monthly basis, a natural extension of people’s fascination with so-called genius. But 2015’s “The End of the Tour,” for example, was one of the better recent examples of a drama about writers because of its willingness to approach David Foster Wallace as an ordinary person with degrees of conflict about his work, its subject matter and its reception.
“The Wife,” especially ironic seeing as it comes from a novel, instead feels like a movie about writers by people who have only glimpsed the practice from afar, understanding little about an author’s mind or the literary community in which the work and the writers exist. After all, most if not all of the best writers have a great thirst for detail. Bouncing back and forth between points in the past and present that are more relevant to a slow, obvious plot than the themes it is supposed to be developing, “The Wife,” which glosses over infidelity and fittingly ends on a manipulative cop-out, favors the general – because getting closer to the narrative would only make it crumble further.
This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.