February 13, 2006 12:00 PM

Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johansson

Sometimes a great performance can save an otherwise drab movie. Playing a tippling aristocrat brimming with bonhomie, Tom Wilkinson nearly rescues A Good Woman, a lumbering adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Wilde’s carefully crafted epigrams and plot—a fortyish woman (Hunt) of questionable repute seems to be making a play for the dashing husband of young Lady Windermere (Johansson)—remains the same. But Woman inexplicably relocates the action from the drawing rooms of Victorian-era London to the cafés and villas of Italy’s balmy Amalfi coast in the early 1930s. Why is never clear, except that the move enables the women characters to wear shorter skirts and more transparent negligees.

Part of the problem here is a fatal case of miscasting. Hunt plays a notorious femme fatale, something the eminently no-nonsense actress lacks the vampy witchery to pull off. It’s just plain painful to watch her toss off come-hither looks—as if Nancy Drew were aiming to become Mata Hari. Johansson too is playing against type, all dewy innocence as the young wife, and it never quite works. Which brings us to wonderful Wilkinson. With silky wit, he underplays his role of jovial suitor to Hunt but always with an appreciative glint in his eye that signals he’s onto her game. (PG)

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