Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lena Olin, Bruce Dern, Juliet Rylance, Avan Jogia, Stephanie Powers, Catherine Curtin, Tonya Pinkins, Caryn West, Ravi Cabot-Conyers
Written by: Tom Dolby, Nicole Brending, Abdi Nazemian
Directed by: Tom Dolby
MPAA Rating: R for language, some graphic nudity and brief sexuality
Running Time: 94
Date: 09/25/2020

The Artist's Wife (2020)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Paint and Suffering

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Artist's Wife is directed by Tom Dolby, the son of the legendary Ray Dolby, the San Francisco resident who invented the famous noise-reducing system.

Tom is himself something of a renaissance man, having published novels and produced films like Call Me by Your Name and Little Men. His directing debut was Last Weekend (2014), which, to put it politely, was stiff and dull.

The Artist's Wife fares better. Dolby has learned to loosen up his writing, and his two leads, Lena Olin and Bruce Dern, give classy, emotional performances that carry the material a long way. Even so, it's still a tad too precious and genteel.

As with Last Weekend, this one is mostly a soap opera about affluent characters, although this time, Dolby has managed to make them closer to human, with problems that normal people might recognize.

Dern plays Richard Smythson, a successful artist who lives in an architectural marvel of a house in East Hampton. He's struggling with dementia and having trouble painting his newest series.

His wife, Claire (Olin), is his rock. Reacting to Richard's struggle, she tries to get in contact with Richard's estranged daughter, Angela (Juliet Rylance), who has her own problems.

Angela is a newly single mom, raising a son with help from a handsome hired male nanny Danny (Avan Jogia), who is also a musician. She doesn't particularly care to get back in touch with her much-absent father.

Additionally, Claire has begun painting again herself, but decides to hide her work from her husband.

Not dissimilar from The Wife (2018), it's not difficult to see where The Artist's Wife is going.

It gets there with the help of a soft, syrupy piano score by the otherwise reliable composer Jeff Grace (The House of the Devil, Meek's Cutoff) and with Dolby's pretty compositions, characters forever posed in front of gorgeous art or architecture.

The dialogue is standard soap stuff, serving the story but rarely feeling lifelike. Dern's gruff, snarling line readings go a long way in helping to salt things up, as does Olin's lamp-like presence. Her smile is so full of generosity, it's hard not to feel the screen glowing. (And it's not hard to see why Danny would be attracted to her.)

The Artist's Wife is a vast improvement over Last Weekend, and it has a few touching moments, but it's constantly at odds with its own artificiality. It doesn't quite meet Richard's requirements of creating art straight from the loins.

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