The fantasy sold in The Wife, based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel of the same name, is of winning the Nobel Prize for literature, and at first that’s fun. An old literary lion, Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), and his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), are sleepless as they await the early morning phone call. Soon comes the comically Scandinavian-accented news, and both are jumping on the bed in happiness.
Once in Stockholm, Joan starts displaying passive resistance to the ceremony, the hobbing and the nobbing, the bowing and drinking, and we’re sent into a nest of flashbacks about the way she choked her dreams and subsumed everything to the man she married—even bearing his terrible secret.
Director Björn Runge’s scolding tone suits our age of the exposure of dick-wielding artists in all fields. And it’s very good to have Glenn Close back. She’s poised as she simultaneously flirts with and fends off a literary parasite named Bone, played by Christian Slater.
Pryce is distinguished actor, but the Norman Mailer/Saul Bellow type is beyond his ken. Moreover, Harry Lloyd’s version of the author in 1950s flashbacks doesn’t match the old man he becomes.
Pryce’s Castleman displays quirky habits when he’s out philandering, like personally autographing walnuts and reciting the last paragraph of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” But The Wife doesn’t seem informed about the literary life, as when tries to lure Joan into a Stockholm bar by saying that it was the kind of place where Strindberg would drink. Is Strindberg the name to drop when you’re trying to charm a literate married woman?
What keeps the film from rising above an insufferable soap is the masochistic insistence that all men are crushers—and that it’s impossible for them to be otherwise.
‘The Wife’ opens Friday, Aug. 31, at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.454.5813.