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February 1-7, 2006

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Mild Wilde

In 'A Good Woman,' Scarlett Johansson plays Meg Windermere and loses; Helen Hunt and Tom Wilkinson redeem matters.

By Richard von Busack

BEWARE OF flying epigrams in A Good Woman. This is a modernized version of Lady Windermere's Fan, replete with Wilde's own dangerous relativism. It's the play where Wilde comments, "Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality." Updated to the 1930s and seasoned by two years in the can, A Good Woman is probably being released now to tie in with the popularity of Match Point.

Setting his version on the Amalfi coast in the 1930s, director Mike Barker takes more than a few liberties with the text. One of his better innovations is making "Meg" Windermere (Scarlett Johansson) an American, so that her backward insistence on propriety makes even as much sense as a Victorian lady's prissiness.

The play is about a domestic misunderstanding. The young, newly married and blissfully happy wife Meg is on vacation with her husband, Robert (Mark Umbers). This woman of rigid principles is particularly alarmed to find Robert consorting with a notorious divorcee, Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt).

Meanwhile, the slouching Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore) takes advantage of the situation. He has long hoped to lure Meg to his yacht. All is righted by the revelation of Mrs. Erlynne's identity. It's old-school melodrama without the punishment: as director Mike Barker puts it, "Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future."

All told, A Good Woman is in much better shape than the recent dreadful remake of The Importance of Being Earnest. There's a certain comedy in a girl as buxom as Scarlett Johansson being prudish, but wouldn't she dress a bit more modestly if she were? After wearing a white satin dress that looks as if it were spray-painted on her, Meg complains about women who wear "too much rouge and not enough clothing."

Umbers as Robert Windermere looks like a male model kicked upstairs, and Moore's bad Lord Darlington is like Hugh Grant's understudy's understudy. The Italians in the picture bustle around like spear carriers at an opera—they don't walk, they mill.

And at times Barker's archness is dismaying. (He turns Wilde's line "Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruin of a pretty one" into something akin to "shop till you drop.") But the film is still worth watching for Hunt. After three years away from the screen following the Woody Allen catastrophe Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hunt has spent the last few years honing her theatrical skills. She can't smother the Southern California interrogative in her diction—you know, how people from my part of the world always raise their voice slightly at the end of every sentence? As if everything were a question?

Still, the voice itself has gotten musical, even as the profile has gotten more restless and raptorlike. Hunt seems concentrated, and never cute, never ever coy. It's very easy to see why a man might prefer a hawk woman like Hunt that to the pouter pigeon Johansson.

In a scene Barker invented, where Meg Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne arrive at the same party wearing the same gown, Hunt looks like Paramount 1935 and Johansson looks like Frederick's of Hollywood 1975.

The movie gets almost heavenly when Mrs. Erlynne and Tom Wilkinson' Lord Augustus, called "Tuppy," get together. The old reprobate recognizes a soul mate in the younger adventuress. You wouldn't see such elegant serves and rebounds at the Olympic badminton finals.

Movie Times A Good Woman (PG; 93 min.), directed by Mike Barker, written by Howard Himelstein, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, photographed by Ben Seresin and starring Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson, opens Feb. 3 in the San Jose area and beyond.

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