Thursday, September 10, 2009

Liam Neeson Meets the Other Man

Thanks to Oprah, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader became the first German novel to reach the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list. It also became the basis for one of the most disappointing Best Picture Oscar nominees in recent years (but it still sold another sizable batch of copies in the process). In its wake, Richard Eyre and co-screenwriter Charles Wood have adapted The Other Man (trailer here), based a short story from Schlink’s Flights of Love collection. It opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday (evidently without the benefit of a movie tie-in edition of Flights).

Peter and Lisa would seem to be a mismatched couple. He is a burley software mogul with an Irish temper. She is a successful, socially-outgoing high fashion shoe designer. Yet, their marriage works because of their mutual love. At least, that is what Peter thought. However, after fate cruelly takes Lisa from him (under circumstances initially kept deliberately vague), he starts to develop some nagging suspicions. For one thing, there is that password protected file on her laptop titled “love.” When Peter finally cracks the (glaringly obvious) code, he discovers pictures of her Latin lover in highly revealing poses.

Already reeling, the still-grieving Peter becomes further agitated when Ralph, the “other man,” tries to contact Lisa. When Ralph wildly misinterprets a she’s-not-here-so-don’t-bother-trying response from Peter, he decides to track down his wife’s lover for a face-to-face confrontation.

In Milan, he follows the suave Ralph (pronounced like Ralph Fiennes) to a chess club and challenges him to a friendly game (hmm, does this mean they are both “game-players?”). Hiding his true identity, Peter strikes up an ostensive friendship with his rival, while probing him for information and perhaps biding his time for the right opportunity to strike.

While Peter’s cat-and-mouse game might sound Hitcockian, Eyre completely de-emphasizes any potentially suspenseful elements in Other, preferring to concentrate on the angst and insecurities of the two men. Unfortunately, the dramatic situations frequently ring false, too often descending into dubious melodrama. However, he shrewdly exploits the romantic locales of Milan and Lake Como, which take on a glossy sheen through cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’s lens.

Liam Neeson is an excellent actor when allowed to quietly simmer and slow boil. However, Eyre has him raging and acting out as the distraught Peter, rather than playing to his strengths. Though Antonio Banderas would sound perfectly cast as Ralph, his jittery mannerisms undercut his believability as the illicit lover.

Like The Reader, the implications of Other ultimately seem murky and contradictory. Lisa shared her darkest moments with Peter, yet the film possibly suggests it was Ralph who knew her best. Does Other imply there is as much lasting value in Ralph’s in-the-moment pleasures as Peter’s lifetime of fidelity? It is hard to say based on the evidence of the film.

Other is certainly a superior film to The Reader, but that is a low bar to clear. Eyre, the acclaimed director of Iris and Notes on a Scandal, has assembled the trappings of another high-brow literary drama, but somehow misfired with this story of grief and infidelity. It opens tomorrow (9/11) in New York at the Empire and Sunshine Theaters.