Friday, June 11, 2021

This Lady in Distress . . . is a Mess (“The Woman in the Window”)

Here’s a recipe for a hit movie: take a hot-selling thriller, part of the always-appealing “damsel in distress” genre, then add the choicest ingredients. Like an admired director (Joe Wright of Atonement fame), a screenwriter with a Pulitzer Prize to his credit (Tracy Letts, who also plays a key supporting role), and a full compliment of skilled craftspeople. Then stir in an A-level cast, including Oscar winners like Gary Oldman and Julianne Moore, headed by the always zesty Amy Adams. On top, drizzle a typically tangy Danny Elfman score. Serve luke-warm.

 I’m being facetious, of course, The most startling aspect of The Woman in the Window  is how many talented people contributed to what turns out to be a dish of leftovers. I haven’t read the popular novel, but the film wants to resemble something by Hitchcock, to the extent of borrowing telling shots from such classics as Vertigo and Rear Window. The plot borrows shamelessly from Rear Window too, combining the idea of a housebound person who witnesses (or maybe witnesses) a crime in the house across the way with that old chestnut: the lady in jeopardy. Since the very beginning of Hollywood, viewers have been titillated by flicks in which a lone female, under the direst of circumstances, must fight for her life against a home invader. See, for example, Barbara Stanwyck as a bed-ridden invalid in 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number. Sixteen years later, it was Olivia de Havilland trapped in a home elevator in Lady in a Cage. Even in this century the trope has persisted: see Jodi Foster in 2002’s Panic Room. It can be argued that these films are a tribute to female strength in times of adversity: even the weakest, sickliest woman can rise to the occasion when circumstances demand. But The Woman in the Window starts with a woman who’s such a physical and psychological wreck that her eventual heroics are neither convincing nor interesting.

 Adams, who was also a painfully hot mess in last year’s Hillbilly Elegy, here plays a child psychologist with a broken family and severe agoraphobia. She takes plenty of meds (washed down with red wine) and has weekly visits from a shrink who makes house calls. And she’s obsessed with the new family across the street from her elaborately creepy Upper Manhattan townhouse. After visits from the weird mother (Moore) and weirder son (Fred Hechinger), she becomes convinced that the father of the family (Oldman) is a killer who’s going to strike again. Alas, no authority figure believes her, especially because there are some gaping holes in the story she tells of her own life. But wait! Why do disturbingly close-up photos of her in bed surface in her email? Maybe something evil DOES this way come. But maybe–just maybe—it’s not the person she suspects.

 In Act 3 of this creaky melodrama, there’s the inevitable (and almost endless) fight to the finish. After which a battered and bruised Adams, now cured of her agoraphobia, finally takes off her frumpy bathrobe and blossoms into a strong, whole woman ready to move out of her house of horrors and take on the world. I’m told this film was scheduled for a theatrical release, until the pandemic led it to be presented on Netflix. Under COVID conditions, a TV movie focusing on someone stuck inside makes a grim sort of sense. But frankly, I don’t choose to be confined with the whiny, dreary folks who make up this cast. The New York Times review of this film came up with a nifty headline: “Don’t You Be My Neighbor.”


 

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