Whatever happened to Helen Hunt? After a hit sitcom, an undeserved Oscar and starring roles in big blockbusters (the abominable What Women Want and the almost-good Cast Away), she practically disappeared into the ether for about five years. The vehicle that she's chosen for her big screen return isn't likely to light a fire under her fan base, either. A lukewarm adaptation of Oscar Wilde's comedy of manners Lady Windermere's Fan, the film casts Hunt as a scandalous seductress, a "notorious Jezebel" who uses her stinging wit and shapely body to lull men into submission before she bleeds their pocketbooks dry. For the whiny, bland woman with a billboard-sized forehead best known for a playing the wife on Mad About You, it's a stretch to say the least.
Hunt seems miscast from the first shot: Introduced in a shrouded, mysterious profile, she does manage to look like a femme fatale; but as soon as her chirpy voice and birdlike features come into view, the movie loses its footing and never recovers. Her Mrs. Erlynne is a gold-digger first seen fleeing New York for the more hospitable climate of Italy, where she plans on digging her claws into the wealthy, young newlywed Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers). His wife Meg (Scarlett Johansson) is a dewy young innocent who suspects no wrongdoing from her doting husband, even as the other high-society folk in Italy for the holiday begin to gossip about Robert's dalliances with Mrs. Erlynne. The yacht-owning playboy Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore), meanwhile, would like nothing more than to reveal Robert's indiscretions to his wife, in the hopes that Meg will come running into his arms. And Mrs. Erlynne has her hands full trying to resist the sexual advances of the blustery Tupper (Tom Wilkinson).
These are all the right ingredients for a playful romp, and screenwriter Howard Himelstein does an admirable job of packing the script with Wilde's witticisms. He's even added a few Americans characters and transplanted the action from Victorian London to 1930s Italy; but the changes seem to have been made just to get some Hollywood names in the cast and fulfill the art-house film quota for floppy hats and exotic beach scenery. Some of the actors seem born to speak Wilde's lines: Wilkinson is his usual wry, brilliant self, and Johansson is ideally cast as the doe-eyed ingenue who gradually gets wise and grows a spine. Kicking her feet in the air and giggling like a little girl at first, Johansson makes an utterly convincing transformation to world-weary wife. Her dialogue never sounds like it's been force-fed, which is more than can be said for the stilted Hunt. Johansson's so good it makes you wonder if any All About Eve-style bitchery took place behind the scenes, between the has-been Oscar winner and the up-and-coming starlet. Now there's a movie that would be entertaining to watch.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.