Late in The Other Man, Liam Neeson and Antonio Banderas share a scene sitting across from each other at a restaurant, glowering, smoldering, and seething with near-equal seriousness. This kind of pure European-grade intensity is what The Other Man traffics in – you won’t find any of the tongue-in-cheek humor Banderas has displayed in his Robert Rodriguez films, or the regal wit that Neeson has revealed when training the likes of Anakin Skywalker and Batman.
Unfortunately, their dinner scene is not exactly Pacino and De Niro having coffee in Heat -- and not just because it's terribly written, with the actors' hostility so detached and mismatched that it becomes almost a series of non-sequiturs. Their mutual riling also serves to encourage thoughts of a more fruitful face-off: The Other Man, so solemn and dramatically miscalculated, indirectly makes us want the rematch to include more gratuitous violence. Article continues below
This bizarre film has the overtones and the ominous score and even the mechanisms of a thriller, but wants to remain grounded in domestic drama. Neeson plays Peter, a software CEO married to Lisa (Laura Linney), a shoe designer. We see them at a fashion show, at dinner, in bed, discussing their lives and their relationship with a playful wistfulness. The film then jumps forward an undetermined amount of time; Lisa is missing, and Peter is despondent, angry, confused. His employees look worried.
Looking through Lisa's left-behind possessions, Peter comes across evidence of an extramarital affair with a man named Ralph (Banderas) -- helpfully located in the computer folder "Personal," subfolder "Love" -- and uses his software prowess to track down Ralph's whereabouts. At first, Neeson summons the unsmiling, righteous anger of his former black-ops supersoldier in Taken and appears ready to murder his rival, albeit unstealthily. ("Where would I get a gun?" he wonders aloud, and his employees look even more worried.) But he elects to keep his identity a secret and introduce himself; soon, Peter and Ralph are chatting like old friends while engaged in a series of hoary metaphors, er, I mean, chess games. Peter steers the conversations toward Lisa without much effort, because Ralph offers personal details with distracting, sometimes hilarious ease.
There are further revelations about Peter, Lisa, and Ralph, and at some point The Other Man becomes a dissonant experience, as three good and typically convincing actors do, say, and leave unsaid all manner of things that serve only the movie's bizarre strategies about revealing and concealing information. Director Richard Eyre shoots his upper-upper-middle-class characters with an autumnal glow edging into noirish shadows, but the script he co-wrote with Charles Wood keeps defusing its own tensions. It’s an ungainly mix of ruminative domestic drama and juicy intrigue that should puzzle its characters more than it does. It's the kind of movie where you keep expecting someone, anyone, to say, "Wait, what are you talking about?"
I haven't read the Bernhard Schlink short story upon which The Other Man is based, but the film feels like a lesson in the trickiness of adaptation -- not just in dealing with plot mechanics, but the process of translation. It seems entirely possible that the strangeness of this film -- the stilted situations, the awkwardly withheld information, the minor epiphanies -- would feel less alien on the page, and more like the weirdness of everyday life. The film version plays like a bleary, wandering dream.