There is something Wildean to the contrarian casting of A Good Woman, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan. In a movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Helen Hunt, you might expect the young “it” girl as the unrepentant vamp Mrs. Erlynne, and the veteran of girlfriend roles as the wife of the philandering Lord Windermere. But the casting is the reverse, as if to replicate the cognitive friction Wilde’s contemporaries felt from his tweaking of Victorian theater tropes and his prankish but profound epigrams.
Unfortunately, the roles happen to highlight the two actors’ clearest limitations, tritest tics, and effortless ability to anesthetize the material. Hunt is the more obvious target, as the apparent seducer of poor Lady Windermere’s hubbie (a bland Mark Umbers). Her years of sitcom hell flash before our eyes as she delivers each line with the smugness of an unsolicited truism, at times sounding like a parody of herself. (“Here’s Helen Hunt doing Oscar Wilde. Ok, now Mamet.”)
Johansson, whose career (if we’re honest) has always skated the border between canny role choices and actual talent, here comes across as overstudious, her confidence belied by any actual grip on the character.
The two actors further suffer from the example of a nimble supporting cast, especially Tom Wilkinson as a happily flawed serial husband who falls for Mrs. Erlynne.
A final oddity about A Good Woman is that Brit director Mike Parker relocates the action to the coast of Italy. There the play’s drawing-room danger seems to wilt into expat clichés, while the dry satire evaporates. I’d rather just sit down with the great man’s complete works.
Opens February 3