Wife, The (1995): Tom Noonan Follow-Up to Sundance Prize-Winning What Happened Was

Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 22, 1995–An ensemble of four fine actors enrich Tom Noonan’s The Wife, a bizarre, often provocative serio-comic dissection of marriage as a fragile yet almost universal institution. Follow-up to Noonan’s impressive feature debut, What Happened Was, which won last year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize, is more ambitious but not as dramatically tight or emotionally satisfying. Prospects for theatrical release are good for a stylish “art” film that may be too demanding on its viewers without providing the expected rewards.

In narrative structure, but decidedly not in tone, The Wife bears resemblance to Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid on Virginia Wolf” as it juxtaposes two middle-aged married couples, neither particularly happy, balanced or stable.

The tale begins with the sudden arrival of Cosmo (Wallace Shawn) and Arlie (Karen Young) at the house of Jack (Tom Noonan) and Rita (Julie Hagerty), a team of New Age therapists, just as they are about to have dinner. Their presence immediately increases the already-existing tension between the hosts, as Cosmo is their patient and Arlie’s conduct is erratically untamed.

It takes some time for the story to get going, as writer-director Noonan is so concerned with concealing the script’s theatrical origins that he uses all kinds of cinematic devices that may be original but also prevent the audience from getting involved in the drama. The camera is set in a way that captures all four characters as they wander from one room to another, engaging in brief conversations with each others. All the audience can hear through the overlapping dialogue are snippets of diatribe, rambling of half sentences.

It appears that Rita, who works with hubby, wants to be closer to him, but he pulls away from her. It’s also clear that Cosmo is not comfortable with his marriage and is more than a bit embarrassed by Arlie’s wildly unstable conduct. In fact, it took a long time for Cosmo, who enjoys an intimate rapport with his therapists, to introduce Arlie to them.

The central dramatic piece is a lengthy dinner sequence, in which the quartet tries to engage in superficial chit-chat, though soon each member is led to reveal some dark secrets of their matrimony–past and present–despite Rita’s initial protest that it’s “unprofessional” to socialize with a patient.

The most disturbing monologue, which is beautifully delivered by Young, comes from Rita as she reconstructs her first meeting with the child-like insecure Cosmo. “I’m his little mommy and he’s my little baby,” says Rita, forcing her confounded husband to confide that he’s experiencing a rather late sexual awakening, finding himself attracted to “all these girls on the street.”

Problem is, writer Noonan spends so much time laying the ground for the emotional outbursts that when they finally occur they are not surprising–or distressing. Moreover, the intent to provide a bitingly satirical take on matrimony, as a long-enduring yet always complex and sometimes frustrating relationship, is not fully realized, as ultimately pic’s melodramatic elements overshadow its comic and satirical.

The script’s shortcomings are overcome by a beautifully accomplished production, supervised by the same team that collaborated on What Happened Was, most notably DeSalvo’s precise lensing and Quellette’s luminous design. There’s no doubt that pic was consciously made as a European art film, exhibiting a most spectacular and elegant visual style. At times, however, the style gets obtrusive: crucial monologues are conveyed through the reflection of the actors’ faces in wine glasses.

To Noonan’s credit, he writes such wonderfully intricate roles for women–no minor feat for a male filmmaker. Under his guidance, the whole cast rises to the occasion, though in the central, best written, part, Young gives the most inspired and touching performance as the uneducated wife, determined to make her marriage work, even as she’s despised by her husband and his intellectually pretentious therapists. Serving notice as soon as she appears, Young inhabits the role completely, projecting an inner verve that goes well beyond the dialogue.

Hagerty, still best known for her comedies, also constructs an intriguing portrait of a troubled, emotionally manipulated wife. In a part specifically written for him, Shawn tackles one of his biggest and most demanding challenges, one calling for frequent mood-changes, sudden bursts of tears and laughter. That Noonan is less impressive may be a function of his generosity as a director and also a result of playing a less sympathetic part.

An emotionally resonant film for thinking viewers, The Wife doesn’t even pretend to understand the mystique of marriage, let alone resolve its characters’ dilemmas. Noonan should be commended for pic’s rich texture, mixing effectively poetic realism with a touch of Pinter’s sardonic humor.