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Arts & Culture

Amy Adams Is The Best Thing In An Otherwise Mechanical 'Woman In The Window'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The psychological thriller "The Woman In The Window," starring Amy Adams, was supposed to be released last year but was held back due to the pandemic. It's based on the best-selling novel by Dan Mallory, writing under the pseudonym A.J. Finn, which stirred controversy in the literary world when it was published in 2018. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: After being delayed for a year, "The Woman In The Window" arrives on Netflix this week, bearing more than the usual baggage for a new release. Two years ago, Dan Mallory, the author of the novel on which it's based, was accused of fabricating details about his life and career. Around the same time, people noted plot similarities between his book and Sarah A. Denzil's 2016 crime novel, "Saving April." I couldn't help but think about these controversies as I watched "The Woman In The Window," which features a most untrustworthy protagonist and pays extended homage to other crime novels and movies. The most obvious influence is "Rear Window."

Only this time, instead of Jimmy Stewart laid up with a broken leg, we're following a child psychologist, Dr. Anna Fox, who has severe agoraphobia and hasn't left her New York brownstone in months. Anna is played by Amy Adams, who, not for the first time, is very good in a movie that doesn't prove entirely worthy of her. To say that it falls short of "Rear Window" would, of course, be unfair since that's true of most suspense films, even some great ones. But "The Woman In The Window" is ultimately too mechanical in its Hitchcockian metaflourishes (ph) to feel like much more than a genre exercise. Still, it holds your attention on its own derivative terms. Speaking as someone who loves vintage crime films, I'm sympathetic to any movie that geeks out over them, too. The housebound Anna spends a lot of her time watching these older movies, from Hitchcock classics like "Spellbound" to timeless whodunnits like "Laura" and the Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall mystery, "Dark Passage." It's fun to watch snippets of them along with her and to mentally prepare for the plot turns they may be foreshadowing.

Pretty soon, Anna is addicted to a real-life thriller that appears to be playing out in the house across the street where a family of three, the Russells, have just moved in. One night, Anna gets a visit from 15-year-old Ethan Russell, a sensitive kid who gives off slightly awkward Norman Bates vibes. Later that week, the boy's mother, played by Julianne Moore, stops by. She's an odd but sympathetic figure, somehow both chatty and cagey. And she makes some insinuating remarks about how controlling Ethan's father is. He's played by Gary Oldman. And when he, too, arrives on Anna's doorstep some time later, apparently looking for his wife, Anna lies and tells him she hasn't had any visitors. A few nights later, Anna looks out her window into the Russells' home and sees Ethan's mom being attacked by an unseen assailant. After trying in vain to take a photo, Anna calls the police. Later, two detectives come to her home, along with Mr. Russell.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW")

GARY OLDMAN: (As Alistair Russell) Hi.

AMY ADAMS: (As Anna Fox) What is this?

JEANINE SERRALIES: (As Detective Norelli) Ma'am, you all right?

ADAMS: (As Anna Fox) Why is he here?

BRIAN TYREE HENRY: (As Detective Little) Mr. Russell believes that you made a mistake.

OLDMAN: (As Alistair Russell) You have never met my wife.

ADAMS: (As Anna Fox) She helped me one night. We spent the evening together.

OLDMAN: (As Alistair Russell) No, no, no, I don't think so.

ADAMS: (As Anna Fox) In fact, he came here looking for her.

OLDMAN: (As Alistair Russell) I was looking for my son, not my wife. And you told me no one had been here.

ADAMS: (As Anna Fox) I lied. We played Gin.

OLDMAN: (As Alistair Russell) Why would you lie about that?

SERRALIES: (As Detective Norelli) Why would you lie about that?

ADAMS: (As Anna Fox) I was afraid that you would punish her.

OLDMAN: (As Alistair Russell) For playing Gin?

HENRY: (As Detective Little) It doesn't matter. The point is, Dr. Fox, is that nothing's happened.

ADAMS: (As Anna Fox) No, no. I know what I saw.

HENRY: (As Detective Little) Nothing's happened to anyone.

ADAMS: (As Anna Fox) No. I was zoomed in with the camera.

SERRALIES: (As Detective Norelli) Did you take a picture?

ADAMS: (As Anna Fox) No, I did not take a picture.

OLDMAN: (As Alistair Russell) She's just admitted she's spying on our house.

HENRY: (As Detective Little) Mr. Russell, please just...

SERRALIES: (As Detective Norelli) Why didn't you take a picture?

HENRY: (As Detective Little) The important thing is, is that everybody's OK, yeah?

CHANG: As everyone begins to doubt Anna's side of the story, so do we. Even from the beginning, it's clear that she's withholding some key details about her life. We hear her talking on the phone with her husband and their young daughter, from whom she's separated for unexplained reasons. Anna drinks a lot, which is a bad idea since she's on a lot of medication. She's a classic, unreliable narrator, a popular trope that has surfaced in similar recent thrillers like "Gone Girl" and "The Girl On The Train." It's a shame that the woman in the window isn't better than it is, given the talent involved. The script was written by the playwright Tracy Letts, who has a sly cameo as Anna's therapist. And it was directed by the English filmmaker Joe Wright, who demonstrated real flair in his adaptations of "Pride & Prejudice," "Atonement" and "Anna Karenina," stylizing them in ways that felt fresh and daringly cinematic.

Wright tries to do the same thing here. He throws a lot of frenzied technique at the screen, including rapid-fire edits, giant eyeball close-ups and a Danny Elfman score that might be channeling the different voices inside Anna's head. He shoots the house interiors from wide angles that suggest this isn't just a home but a stage where Anna performs the theater of her life. But none of it really works. The movie cuts from one jolt to the next so quickly that no suspense or dread is able to build. And for all the attempts to convey some sense of Anna's agitated state, we never really feel like we're inside her head.

That's no knock on Amy Adams, who tries to underplay the intensity and find her character's complexity. She plays up Anna's moments of lucidity and her natural empathy for others as she begins digging around in the Russells' past and also her own. As the walls close in and the story wraps up with a series of fairly predictable twists, you can't help rooting for Anna and hoping perhaps that the next crime thriller she watches might be better than this one.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new thriller, "The Woman In The Window," now streaming on Netflix. On Monday's show, failure and dysfunction at the U.S. Secret Service. Journalist Carol Leonnig talks about understaffing, faulty equipment, low morale and critical breakdowns at the agency. When a man with a knife jumped the White House fence in 2014, he wasn't stopped until he reached the stairs to the president's living quarters. Leonnig's book is called "Zero Fail." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S "JOIE DE VIVRE")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S "JOIE DE VIVRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.