Thursday, June 13, 2019

Mediocre White Men

Film: The Wife
Format: DVD from Rock Island Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

How do we live in a world where Glenn Close doesn’t have an Oscar? Seriously, this is someone who has had such a substantial career playing virtually anything conceivable, and doing it so well as to be believable no matter what the role. In that respect, her role in The Wife is perhaps the one that she has been destined to play. This is a story where her character has lived her entire life in the shadow of her husband, always in the background and always overshadowed.

Our main couple here is the Castlemans, Joe (Jonathan Pryce) and Joan (Close). As the film begins, Joe Castleman is nervous and restless. The reason is soon evident—the phone rings and he receives the news that he is being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and suddenly their lives are thrown into a strange and surreal moment of turmoil. People naturally come out of the woodwork to congratulate him, and to a much lesser extent, his almost clichĂ©-level long suffering wife. We also learn that their daughter (Alix Wilton Regan) is pregnant and their son (Max Irons) is beginning his career as a writer.

We shift forward in time to the days immediately before the Nobel ceremony, getting a little bit of tension in the person of Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who has attempted to ingratiate himself in the world of the Castlemans before this and has recently been given a commission to work on a biography of Joe Castleman, the great author. All of this seems initially overwhelming for Joan, who does her best to put on a smile, but also seems to be dealing with all of the attention with ill grace.

We gain a little more insight into their lives as we flashback to their early years, where Joan is the student of Joe, and an affair between them not only breaks up his first marriage, but forces him to leave teaching in the Ivy League and move instead to a backwater college. What we learn is that Joan, who claims to not be a writer, was extremely talented. And when we get back to the present day, we learn that Nathaniel Bone has learned this. And what’s more, we learn that he has found her early stories and that they read a lot more like Castleman’s work than Joe Castleman’s early work. And that, dear reader, is the true story of The Wife.

I’m going to leave this there and not detail any more of the plot, because what happens after we learn this is what makes The Wife what it is.

But I ask again the question I opened this review with: How on Earth do we live in a world where Glenn Close doesn’t have an Oscar? She is better in this than she has been in anything in her career, and she’s been one of the great actors of her generation since the mid-1980s. So much of the story here plays out on her face and on her smallest movements. This is not so much Glenn Close acting as her inhabiting a role as completely as possible. I can’t say this enough; about 80% of this movie’s plot can be discerned from Glenn Close’s attitude.

It’s also a good role for Jonathan Pryce. I’ve been a fan of Pryce’s since I first saw Brazil. Like Close, he’s had a career of insanely varied roles and has managed not merely to never win an Oscar, but to escape Oscar’s notice entirely. Here, he plays once again the sort of role that doesn’t so much define his career as simply serve as another example of his astonishing versatility. Why shouldn’t he be able to play a malignant narcissist perfectly well? He should, of course, and with a lesser performance across from him, this would be his film.

It’s also worth saying that I like seeing Christian Slater here. Years ago, Slater was an up-and-comer even if he was really just doing Jack Nicholson in many of his roles. And then his career faded for a bit. Here he is, though, in a small but meaningful role in a damn good movie. This is the sort of career reversal that I love seeing. He had some tough years and a lot of ugly run-ins with the law. Maybe he’s gotten his life together again and can start getting work in good films again. Let’s hope so.

But while all of this is true, this is so much Glenn Close’s film, and she is absolute perfection in it. This might be the best performance I’ve seen in half a decade.

Why to watch The Wife: Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, and it’s nice to see a little career resurgence for Christian Slater.
Why not to watch: It’s a hard story to enjoy.


  1. "And then his career faded for a bit."

    Gleaming the Cube. Yikes.

    1. Well, that and a bunch of assault and similar charges.

      And Alone in the Dark.

  2. I agree with everything you said about Glenn Close. After watching this (post Oscar) I couldn't believe she hadn't won. Not that I didn't think Olivia Colman was terrific in The Favorite (though she was clearly supporting) nor that she didn't give the best, most heartfelt speech of the night when she won but having now seen all the nominees Glenn was clearly the best by many miles.

    It's not worth even saying I hope she gets another role that will put her in play again because for some reason there seems to be some sort of animus against her and it would be sad to see her have to go through the whole dance again only to lose graciously as she did this time.

    As for the rest of the film I thought it okay but without her it would have been forgettable.

    I wonder if Glenn would done better if this had been called something along the lines of "The Kingmaker" rather than "The Wife"?

    1. That's a fascinating possibility. Here's a thought for you. Just a thought...

      The Wife is a story about a woman who is the true genius behind her husband's success in every possible way. And it manages this nomination, but is not nominated for Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay.

      I'm not a conspiracy theorist by any means, but I have to say that, having seeing this, I'm both surprised and not shocked that it didn't earn those nominations. Of course, I could say the same thing about First Reformed and a nomination for Ethan Hawke, so it would seem that this is just typical Oscar bullshit.

  3. Just for the record, a small contingent of fans including myself have been greatly enjoying Christian Slater's work the past few years on the USA Network TV show Mr. Robot, so he hasn't exactly been entirely off the map as of late. Before he landed that show, though, his career had been in a bit of a struggle, so it is indeed nice to see him somewhat back in the fold.

    I hadn't been too interested to see this one, but man from the things I'm hearing I might need to take the time just for Glenn Close alone. I remember the swarm of Lady Gaga fans around Oscar time foaming at the mouth that the pop star might actually win Best Actress, and her response on I believe Twitter was a gracious reply of: "I appreciate the comments... but have you SEEN Glenn Close?"

    1. Sadly, I think Joel's idea that there might be some hostility toward Glenn Close might be factual. She has had a career with some truly amazing performances, and as I said above, I think this is the best thing she's ever done.

      It's a fair point about Slater--I don't get to much television, so I'm unaware of it beyond knowing it starred Rami Malek.