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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 1, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


The Other Woman, Palace of Stone

In the classic meaning of the term, The Other Woman is a "sex farce." That is, it revolves around questions of adultery and romance, and it's meant to be funny.

Unlike most recent sex farces, however, The Other Woman actually is funny. And, unlike most, it does it without descending into raunchiness. The humor arises from character and situation, not from attempting to shock the audience.

Because of her well-earned star status, Cameron Diaz is the headliner of The Other Woman and the title mostly refers to her character. But the heart and soul of this movie is Leslie Mann, playing Kate King, the wife of the philandering man whose adulteries and deceptions drive the story.

The story starts with Cameron Diaz as Carly, a high-powered lawyer who falls in love (i.e., has lots of bouncy-bouncy sex) with entrepreneur Mark King (the tragically good-looking Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known right now as Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones).

Here is the honesty of this comedy: Wherever Mark King goes, looking like money and reeking of confidence and testosterone, women quiver and wriggle and signal their complete availability to him.

It's as if he lives in a smorgasbord. He doesn't have to go prowling for food -- it's within easy reach, all the time.

Of course, the most interesting of the women available to him expect that each of them will be the only woman he's "with." They don't mind that other women want him -- that's flattering to them. They do mind, however, when they find out he's been lying to them and there is nothing exclusive about their relationship.

It is inevitable, in a sex farce, that the wife and the mistress will meet. Because wife Kate has devoted herself completely to the marriage, she has neither close friends nor financial resources to fall back on. So mistress Carly is coopted into being her friend.

The Other Woman does a good job of making their friendship develop with both humor and believability. And wife Kate is not portrayed as a loser who has "let herself go." Quite the opposite -- she's been working hard at staying in shape and running the household.

Once Kate and Carly become allies, they discover that there is yet another "other woman" -- voluptuous young Amber (swimsuit-issue model Kate Upton). While we get plenty of shots of Amber running in a bikini, the main mass of her breasts is usually left out of frame, so we are allowed to see her as a person rather than a talking boob job.

Amber is not smart, but she's not absurdly stupid, either. Philanderer Mark King is not a stupid man and has reasonably good taste in his choice of companion. So it is believable that the three women will eventually ally against him; and equally believable that each will be tempted, from time to time, to betray the other two.

Minor characters also surface, most notably a huge dalmatian "puppy" whose scrotum is almost as well-stocked as Amber's bikini top. Second in importance to the dog is Nicki Minaj as Lydia, Carly's confidante/receptionist. After a season of fast-forwarding through her grating voice as a judge on American Idol, I was surprised to find that she was delightfully entertaining in this role.

Don Johnson, as Carly's philandering father, and Taylor Kinney of Chicago P.D., as Kate's contractor brother Phil, round out the excellent cast.

Not everybody will love this movie. Those who want gross-out shock comedies will be disappointed. Those who are offended by candid talk about sex and lots of sexual situations should stay away.

But nudity is kept to newsstand levels of acceptability, and the language is generally decorous, compared to f-bomb-fests like Bridesmaids. I realize that I can say this only because in recent years our culture's standards have become so wretchedly low, but: The Other Woman is funny by relying on cleverness rather than coarseness.

So I don't recommend this movie to romantic-comedy fans. But I do recommend it to grown-ups who are ready to be amused by a smart, well-performed treatment of the search for loyalty and fidelity in our post-moral culture.

***

If there's ever been a book series title that told boys they were not wanted as readers, it has to be Shannon Hale's Princess Academy. Imagine being a sixth grade boy when your friends discover that you've got a book titled Princess Academy in your backpack.

"I'm bringing it home to my sister," sez you, in self-defense, hoping they won't remember that you don't have a sister, or that she's two years old.

Or, if you really want to lose all hope of having friends, you say, "The Princess Academy books are about girls, yes, but they're also primers on economics and civics, and anyone who reads them will come away with a real understanding of how even monarchies and dictatorships depend on the will of the people, while the laws of economics apply regardless of edicts from above."

The first book by Shannon Hale that I ever read was the original Princess Academy, and while I have since enjoyed many other books of hers -- and also found her to be one of the funniest, most insightful of authors when she speaks ad lib to school-age audiences -- I will confess that I was particularly delighted to realize that she came out with a Princess Academy sequel, called Palace of Stone, a couple of years ago.

I missed it because ... well, because I'm not in middle school, eagerly checking the school library for new books by favorite authors. Shannon doesn't have me on her mailing list, so new titles of hers can appear without my having a clue.

I only realized Princess Academy: Palace of Stone existed because the large-cast audiobook popped up as a you-may-like suggestion from Audible.com.

Normally, I don't like audiobooks in which the dialogue of each character is read by a different reader. It's usually a feeble attempt at simulated dramatization, and casting is usually uneven, so I end up wishing the narrator would just read all the dialogue, suggesting the different voices.

So I am a bit chagrined to report that this half-dramatized production is actually rather good. The editing is exceptionally smooth, so that you don't have little delays between the narrator's "said" and the actor's delivery of the speech.

The process is enormously expensive, especially when you do it well; I hope they've sold enough copies of the audiobook to justify the cost. It's certainly a pleasure to listen to.

The story is inventive. Its fantasy element -- the ability of people raised in a certain mountain village to speak to each other's minds through the stone they quarry -- does not dominate the story. Mostly we concentrate on the maneuvering of a group of rebels who are working to overthrow a royal family whose taxation is so onerous that the common people are reduced to paupery.

Our heroine, Miri, comes with her fellow Princess Academy graduates to the capital, where she is the designated scholar among them. This requires her to leave the royal palace every day to study at the college, then return each night to teach the other girls some of what she learned that day.

Miri thinks she is falling in love with a rich young scholar who introduces her to the chief conspirators, and at first she is in perfect sympathy with them. But when their plans shift to rousing the people against Miri's friend, the designated princess-to-be, Miri becomes conflicted.

In her ethics class, a hypothetical situation has been posed: Suppose there is a fire in a building that houses both an irreplaceable painting of great beauty and a prisoner, guilty of murdering a child. You only have time to save one of them. Which will it be? The inanimate but irreplaceable painting? Or the human but unworthy criminal?

This becomes Miri's dilemma as she seems to be forced to choose between saving the oppressed people of the kingdom and saving her friend the princess.

Readers of Shannon Hale's fiction will not be surprised to learn that there is no easy answer, and that the resolution of the problem is not easy or convenient.

Miri is forced into some real ethical dilemmas, but ultimately she finds a way to serve and save both the people and her friend -- though it helps that the people and the friend also show their true character in ways that help them save themselves.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that this series of books has already achieved the status that can only be called "beloved." I know a young couple who admire the character of Miri so much that they gave that name to daughter. I think it will be a name she can bear proudly; she will grow up to love the character she was named for.

I read Young Adult and Middle Grade books, not because I have children or even grandchildren the "right" age for them, but because this is where some of the best writing is being published today. I buy and read these books for myself, for the pleasure of good stories well told.

Shannon Hale is one of the best writers working in this area, and Princess Academy: Palace of Stone is a serious book that will make its readers, young and old, consider serious questions about public and private responsibility.

Children raised on the Princess Academy books will grow up to be wiser -- and better educated about civics, ethics, and economics -- than their peers, without ever knowing they have taken a good introductory course in all three subjects.

All the children will realize is that they've read a terrific story.

I say "children" but I recognize that few boys will be among the readers. That's a shame, but I can't allow you to pretend that these aren't girly books. There's a lot of romance in them, and a couple of full-fledged kisses.

For boys with the spunk to read these books, they get an additional introductory course in that vital subject "How Girls Think About Boys." When I was a lad, I had no qualms about reading girly books as well as boy-centered adventures -- Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island alongside Little Women and Pride & Prejudice.

Obviously, I was not your ordinary boy reader. But I was not unique, and I urge parents of precocious boy readers to have books like these lying about the house so that they might tempt boys to read stories that will give them insights into the hearts of the opposite sex. It will help them grow up to be better men -- and it will teach them that reading "out of category" is a rewarding experience.


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