Film Review: If I Were You

An anti-rom-com in the best sense, Joan Carr-Wiggin’s film joyously revives the screwball tradition with real wit, as well as making one fabulously tart female buddy movie.

An unholy alliance is formed when Madelyn (Marcia Gay Harden) horrifyingly spots her husband Paul (Joseph Kell) having dinner with a heretofore unsuspected and quite younger girlfriend, Lucy (Leonor Watling), an aspiring actress of no discernible talent. Madelyn follows Lucy home and prevents the dippy, distraught girl from committing suicide, never telling her who she really is. She gets the details of her husband’s affair from Lucy, and describes her own experience with a straying partner. A completely ignorant Lucy observes that people screw up their own lives but would never willfully destroy someone else’s, so the two make a pact to give each other advice with the caveat that they both must do exactly what they are told.

The premise of If I Were You may sound farfetched, but director Joan Carr-Wiggin, working from her own sprightly and very clever script, makes a whole lot of comic magic happen, even managing to instill some heart into the final act without ever becoming too queasy or manipulative. As crazed as much of the movie is, Carr-Wiggin brings a trenchantly observed emotional accuracy to her two daffy but highly ingratiating dames. They’re every bit as funny foils for each other as another classic femme odd couple, Marlo Thomas and Elaine May, in the too-little-known In the Spirit, with Watling similarly playing the maddeningly obtuse gadfly (Thomas’ role) to Harden’s inexhaustibly exasperated straight woman (who nevertheless gets in some choice digs of her own).

The film is full of laugh-out-loud moments and lines, as when Lucy bemoans the memory of making wonderful love to Paul “on this very sofa!,” blithely numb to the fact that Madelyn is sitting on it. Later, having not heard from Paul in a while, she wonders if he died, and Madelyn snarls, “Men who don’t call are never dead!” Attempting to hang herself once more, Lucy tells the hostile yet concerned Madelyn, “If I just go brain-dead, promise you’ll put a pillow over my face.”

Harden, having given protean performances onstage in Angels in America and God of Carnage, has honed her skills here to such a degree that she is, finally, fully deserving of the Oscar she mistakenly got for Pollock (oh, that Brooklyn accent!). It’s a prodigious comic turn with two breathtakingly sustained scenes: the first a drunken diatribe she directs at the members of an advertising focus group she runs, shortly after learning of Paul’s betrayal, and the other a phone conversation with Paul during Lucy’s audition for a pathetic production of King Lear that is overheard by the director, and so impassioned that he gives her the title role. Eventually and in an almost miraculously organic way, Harden also conveys, via some equally impressive arias, Madelyn’s mid-life malaise, brought on both by Paul’s infidelity and her mother’s deterioration through Alzheimer’s.

“Now, who to play the Fool?” that same theatre director muses, as Madelyn hilariously nudges the lovably silly Lucy. Watling’s Spanish accent gives the character just the right touch of otherness, which supports her infuriating but amusing feyness and lends many of her lines a singular comic spin. In all of their scenes together, she and Harden get a dizzyingly manic acting rhythm going, marked by ineffable timing and surprise.

I just wish Carr-Wiggin had cast stronger actors in the roles of Paul (Kell is too obviously not a match for either woman), Madelyn’s co-worker (Gary Piquer), who's in love with her, and his highly suspicious wife (Valerie Mahaffey). All three of them perform in a far more conventional and predictable, flustered sitcom-y way, which doesn’t serve the material as well as the imaginative drive the two lead women bring to it. In the tradition of Alan Bates in An Unmarried Woman, Aidan Quinn also appears as the kind of dreamily available savior of a right guy for Madelyn, and although he perhaps has paid one too many visits to Mr. Botox, his calm, measured energy is a more effective contrast to these formidable ladies.

Carr-Wiggin does make a huge error in ladling on unnecessary Muzak during Madelyn’s ultimately triumphant opening night as Lear. The soundtrack booms away with faux fervor over an extended montage of staged scenes, effectively muffling many of Harden’s terrifically coherent and quite original readings of the familiar Shakespearean lines. The director somewhat redeems herself by not belaboring the denouement, ending things on an abrupt, triumphant yet somewhat quizzical note that is the perfect wrap-up.