Tom Noonan’s 1995 film The Wife is a finely concentrated, subtle, perturbing, strangely humane, and nearly perfect American comedy. It’s the kind of film I always hoped Woody Allen would eventually make, shedding the limitations of middlebrow deference and propriety: the habitual inferiority complex of someone who doesn’t feel he really belongs at the grown-ups’ table long after he’s earned a seat there. But The Wife has no such compunctions about the lively vulgarities lurking inside cerebral sanctuaries—no one here is going to use phony WASPy euphemisms when “fuck” is plainly called for.
It opens in the chilly outdoors, by a solitary house well off the beaten track. This might easily be Ingmar Bergman’s private compound at the North Pole: we first see married therapists Jack and Rita, played by Noonan and Julie Hagerty, walking back to that rustic abode—him tall, swaddled, and brandishing a staff-like walking stick, her a bundle of frayed nerves scuttling crabbily across the whiteness. They’re fractious variations on a von Sydow/Ullmann twosome recast as New Agey headshrinkers. (Chakras are duly invoked—and the finer points thereof debated—along with the old Bob Newhart Show mantra of “getting in touch with your true feelings.”)
Soon a forlorn patient (Wallace Shawn) pulls up in the long, dark driveway to the couple’s cozy little hideaway, interrupting their tense Sunday evening “we” time. He’s an apologetic, anxious elf who has his own baggage—one very aggrieved, embittered wife (Karen Young)—in tow. Writer-director-editor-composer Noonan takes as his premise the old standby about a couple who come over to dinner and won’t leave. He uses the framework as a magnifying glass to explore the keen farcical possibilities in your basic savage, soul-baring Strindberg-Bergman-Albee wound-fest, while laying a believable foundation for the actors to build fully idiosyncratic characters on. If dysfunctionality is the alpha and omega of modern movie comedy, here it feels utterly grounded in painful circumstance and the give-and-take of life’s ordinary madness.
Noonan’s four-piece ensemble is a quartet of troubled, miserable, manipulative individuals. As the self-abnegating patient Cosmo, Shawn gives the definitive reading of a pathetically ingratiating neurotic whose schlubby façade masks a hard core of (im)passive aggression and sexual rage. Young’s domineering former stripper Arlie more than holds her own against her semi-intellectual “worm” of a husband with a primeval mix of streetwise toughness, deeply ingrained malice, and belittling humor. (Her nicknames for him include “Momo,” “Coco,” and—improvised in a flash of escalating contempt—“Wormie.”) At every turn she outmaneuvers his efforts to leave his revered doctors/parental figures in peace, angling for a dinner invitation and planting herself in their midst like a spiny potted cactus.
Young’s performance is head-on ferocious yet full of delicate recesses and nuances— fearlessly funny without ever slipping into caricature, terrifying without losing touch with the choking essence of suffering that produced all this emotional turmoil and seething-cauldron humor. The actress was married to Noonan at the time, and this part gives her the opportunity to astonish, without it seeming like a mere showcase to strut her stuff. She’s attentively engaged in the moment and with the actors around her, even as the character’s going down in a self-immolating pyre of destructiveness.
Hagerty’s Rita, shifting between bone-weary withdrawal, prim good-hostess/ therapist calm, hysterical pill-head laughter, and barely contained agony, is a study in panicked desperation and denial. Trying to keep the evening, along with her shaky career/marriage, from capsizing in a maelstrom of recriminations and rupture, she manifests a blend of bravery, resignation, and eruptive, out-of-the-blue cunning. Playing the most outwardly fragile member of this wreckage crew, she has the most surprising reserves of obstinacy—this is the best example of Hagerty’s devastating knack for ringing complex changes on a misleadingly lightweight voice and skittish appearance. She’s a well-seasoned time bomb inside a sugary box of Girl Scout cookies.
And Noonan himself, a looming figure out of a Charles Addams drawing, brandishes his stick like a sly cross between Chaplin’s cane and a cult leader’s browbeating cudgel. Jack’s modus operandi is an inscrutable combination of brotherly concern and Big Brotherly malevolence. His cruel sarcasm (picking up on Arlie’s jeers, he joins in her taunting—“Coco’s been a bad boy”—savoring the words with mischievous sadism) is tempered by boyish exuberance just enough to make you wonder whether he’s a smiling monster or, at heart, a well-meaning wolf-mensch with his own unconquerable insecurities. Noonan’s genius is for making it gradually apparent that Jack could be both of those things, and maybe something else in the bargain. Then and now an actor mostly recognized for playing fiends and ghouls (Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter; an especially chilling 1996 episode of The X-Files, “Paper Hearts”), Noonan here channels the charisma of nihilism through carefully placed intimations of vulnerability: possibly genuine, but certainly a means to tune into and co-opt the vulnerabilities of others.
The film sprouts like organic tendrils—or is it cracked pods?—out of this Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? setup. (If the Body Snatchers came for this group, they’d run away with their spores between their legs.) Like his earlier film What Happened Was… (94), The Wife was workshopped as a play first, under the title Wifey (as in Arlie’s caustic howdy-do, “I’m Wifey,” though someone must have figured the title was too abrasively down-market for the film). But it was a big leap forward visually, as well as in terms of naturalistic, conversational flow. (What Happened Was… embraced the unbearable awkwardness of a bad date between two socially inept, deeply impaired people, but its third act retained a very stagy presentation.) Joe DeSalvo’s cinematography is immensely evocative in the way it integrates direct, intimate viewpoints with elegant setups, creating a split-screen effect by showing one conversation through the kitchen entrance and another reflected in a living-room mirror. Or showing an upside-down image of Jack and Cosmo’s reflection in a pond—he gets a lot of still-life mileage within a maze-like home. Blazing firelight is used to comic expressionist effect, as are faces distorted in wine bottles: the play of light and darkness is configured into a Munch palette of sexual unease (cf. Arlie’s striptease demonstration). Translucent close-ups put you right under the characters’ itchy skins.
Noonan has a great way of spreading out the discomfiture equally, not playing favorites, and constantly keeping the expectations off-balance. Just when someone pulls a stunt of pure awfulness or blurts something horrendous, there will be a flash of forlorn defenselessness, a frantic desire to connect. And no sooner than you’ve registered that, there’s another kick in the gut: Jack smirking, “I hope it wasn’t something I said,” or responding to Rita’s plaintive “Why are you doing this?” with a blithely contemptuous shrug. “It’s called living, honey.”
I can’t think of another film that has a better grasp on how the smallest things can be freighted with all of a marriage’s stresses. Something as simple as complaining that the music’s too much and getting up to change it can encapsulate years of petty slights and dissatisfaction. “This is really happening,” Jack crows during dinner, giddy with anticipation of what fresh hell might be uncorked; when Arlie, already good and drunk, asks if there’s any more wine, he just smiles beneficently. “I think I can dig something up.” The distress in The Wife is right in your face, but it has an encrusted, unfolding quality. Cosmo and Arlie are handcuffed to each other by infuriated need: each is the other’s lifeline, but knowing a partner’s weaknesses, and living with the realization that they know yours, has blossomed into mutual loathing. (Love can work that claustrophobic juju on you.) The same goes for Jack and Rita, to a lesser (or more “civilized”) degree. And Cosmo’s transference onto Jack and Rita is as understandable, and inevitable, as it is ridiculous (no wonder Arlie feels like the Odd Woman Out in their therapeutic “family”). Codependence is just the tip of the iceberg. Goaded on by Jack—the therapist as eviscerating auteur—each takes their turn wielding the communal blowtorch and being on the receiving end.
In What Happened Was…, in which Karen Sillas’s Jackie has turned her childhood sexual abuse into an infantilized, sing-song form of art therapy, Noonan makes an interesting connection between the Hitchcock/De Palma/Shining mode of psychosexual thriller (with all its investment in fetish and well-regulated fear) and the more mundane but far more unwieldy horrors of actual existence. Compared to the chain of mortifications possible between two—let alone four—people stuck in a dining room with each other, fanciful acts of orchestrated violence are a release and blissful escape from the dreadful demands of intimacy. Slashers and serial maniacs are safety valves, Santa’s helpers to keep our real night terrors under wraps. The Wife watchfully expounds on the earlier film’s notion of “the lonely, damaged, crippled, the people who make this country what it is.” Noonan replaces the shopworn conception of Ordinary People with the truer and, oddly enough, more universal one of Damaged People. More than a handy conceit, here it’s a way of being, the four-alarm siren song of this American life.
“We should all become friends,” Jack tells his little brood. Jean Renoir isn’t the name that first springs to mind from a disrupted social context like this, but everyone here emphatically has their own reasons. Neither is Chekhov’s, but if there’s a contemporaneous movie with which Noonan’s raucous chamber piece has a kinship, it is Louis Malle’s considerably more subdued 1994 film Vanya on 42nd Street (also with Shawn). When I first discovered The Wife on cable in the late Nineties, I figured that if Woody Allen had directed it—branded it—the movie would have reached a decent-sized audience. But maybe for Allen’s audience, the whole point is to touch on these problems without ever getting too close to the bone. If you can look at The Wife and say you haven’t been there and been undone like that, either you’ve led a charmed life or you’re kidding yourself. In Noonan’s world, we’ve met the maniacs, and they is us.