The notion of disenfranchised women getting together to flummox men, as the central engine driving the plot, dates back at least as far as Aristophanes. But after two and a half millennia, it's still hardly a cultural staple. "The Other Woman" — unlikely to be confused with the 2009 Natalie Portman flop of the same name — is the latest in this long, but underpopulated, line. The most famous entries in living memory — if you've lived as long as I have — are probably "9 to 5" and "First Wives Club." But the film's specifics are most reminiscent of the sadly forgotten 1968 "Three in the Attic."
In both, the central setup is that an arrogant, self-styled stud keeps each of his three simultaneous girlfriends unaware of the others. Of course, they eventually find out. Rather than compete for his affections, they band together for revenge.
In this case, bigshot lawyer Carly (Cameron Diaz) — a hard-bitten realist who has long since abandoned any illusions about finding Mr. Right — is dating Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a charming, handsome, attentive, successful businessman. He seems so perfect that she begins to lose her cynical edge...until she meets Mark's hitherto unmentioned wife, Kate (Leslie Mann).
Kate has been a stay-at-home suburban wife for so long that she has no friends of her own to confide in...so she descends upon the unwilling Carly for support. Carly is appalled by this whiny, needy waif forcing her way into her life, but somehow — and it's to the great credit of the actresses that they make this believable — Carly and Kate actually become best friends.
As they launch an espionage mission tracking Mark — with the "Mission: Impossible" theme in the background — they discover that he is stringing along yet another woman, Amber (Kate Upton), who is indecently young and impossibly hot. The trio launch a very crafty campaign to undermine the source of Mark's power — his utter confidence in his attractiveness. Not to ruin the joke, let's just say that they come up with some ideas that are as clever as they are (from a male standpoint) horrifying.
Mann has the most purely comic role; and her frenetic delivery can be exhausting. Diaz, working better modulated turf, regains some of the dignity that her appearance in "The Counselor" destroyed. Supermodel Upton may have been cast just so there was someone Diaz could believably feel physically outclassed by, but her girl-next-door innocence is exactly what's called for. She has a few of the best lines in the script, and she tosses them off perfectly.
Don Johnson — who at this point seems like a venerable old cultural icon — is also perfectly cast as Carly's dad, whose behavior goes a long way to explaining Carly's low expectations of men; at the same time, it's made clear that, while emotionally immature, he isn't even close to the vile scoundrel that Mark is.
Despite the excellent casting decisions, "The Other Woman" is never more than intermittently funny. The script is simply underpowered; and director Nick Cassavetes ("The Notebook," "John Q") doesn't have the pacing or inventiveness to compensate.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).