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'The Artist's Wife' review: East End-set drama never feels realistic

Bruce Dern and Lena Olin in "The Artist's

Bruce Dern and Lena Olin in "The Artist's Wife." Credit: Strand Releasing

PLOT As an elderly painter struggles with Alzheimer’s, his wife rediscovers her own creativity.

CAST Lena Olin, Bruce Dern, Juliet Rylance

RATED R (language and some nudity)


WHERE On demand

BOTTOM LINE Tom Dolby’s portrait of an artist lacks crucial detail.

"I create the art," the Hamptons-based painter Richard Smythson tells a television interviewer in "The Artist’s Wife." As for the spouse at his side, Claire, "she creates the rest of our life." That was before Richard, played by 84-year-old Bruce Dern, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As Richard spirals into confusion and paranoia, Claire, played by the great Lena Olin, wonders if she made the right decision giving up her own artistic career decades ago.

Tom Dolby’s fictional tale of creativity and self-sacrifice recalls the real-life artists Jackson Pollock and his long-suffering spouse, Lee Krasner, if only because they also lived on the East End. Dolby, the film’s director and co-writer ("Last Weekend") is a former Wainscott resident and shot his film all over the area, from Sag Harbor to Montauk. If he did use Pollock and Krasner as models, though, this cinematic portrait unfortunately never feels realistic or fully fleshed-out.

Dolby’s two leads couldn’t be better cast. Dern plays Richard as an aging crank who has long used his creative genius to get away with misogyny and racism. He’s an almost-dead white male. Meanwhile, Olin’s intelligence and sensuality remain undimmed since her career-making role in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" more than 30 years ago. In one scene, Claire turns the patriarchal tables by inviting a cute dude less than half her age (Avan Jogia) to come over and check out her, uh, canvas.

"The Artist’s Wife" arrives just a few years after "The Wife" (2017), another movie about a celebrated male and the woman laboring in his shadow. (The movie earned Glenn Close an Oscar nod.) The similarities are hard to ignore: For instance, both movies feature classroom lectures that mix passionate talk with outdated chauvinism. Adding the stock character of the estranged daughter (Juliet Rylance as Angela) who attempts to reconcile with her father does little to make "The Artist’s Wife" feel original.

What rings least true in "The Artist’s Wife" are its ideas of art. What is Richard’s place in history? What were his best years, his major works, his stated goals? His generic-looking paintings won’t tell us. "I never really captured the beauty of life," he complains. It’s a disappointing banality that makes us wonder how this artist obtained his high stature.

At one point, Claire walks into Manhattan’s New Museum to see a video installation by an old friend. Not only are the videos amusingly "dark" and "edgy" (lots of marital aids and suggestive lollipops), they’re made by a zany artiste played by – of all people -- Stefanie Powers, of the ABC crime-comedy "Hart to Hart." It’s the one scene in which "The Artist’s Wife" brims with creativity and finally hits the artistic nail on the head.

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