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'Good Woman' is pretty, but not quite Wilde enough

''A Good Woman" is Oscar Wilde's ''Lady Windermere's Fan" updated to the 1930s and minus the acute social observation. This is a little like remaking ''Gone With the Wind" without the Civil War.

In stage plays like ''Fan" and ''The Importance of Being Earnest," Wilde used wickedly sharp dialogue and glittering farce as scalpels, laying open the hypocrisies of an Edwardian upper-class audience that only felt the sting on the hansom-cab ride home. They were social comedies very much of their moment, so bringing the action only halfway to the present day seems genuinely pointless. Still, ''A Good Woman" is pretty to look at and fakes witty elegance passably, so consider it a diversion -- a movie that might have been in the Oscar race if the elements had jelled but has instead been properly hung out to dry in February.

It also answers the burning question: Where the heck has Helen Hunt been? After winning a 1997 Oscar for ''As Good as it Gets," the actress has had one popular hit -- ''What Women Want" in 2000 -- and a lot of squidgy misfires (''Pay It Forward," ''The Curse of the Jade Scorpion"). Doing a tasteful period film may be an act of desperation or desperate boredom, but give Hunt credit for making the most of her miscasting.

She plays Mrs. Erlynne, a single woman of a certain age who shocks high society by living casually off other women's husbands. This ''notorious Jezebel" arrives on the Amalfi coast of Italy trolling for fresh meat (we've seen her chased out of New York City in the opening scenes), and sets her sights on Robert Windermere (Mark Umbers), a young, upright American businessman newly married to his adoring wife Meg (Scarlett Johansson). Cluck go the gossiping hens as Mrs. Erlynne and her conquest are seen ducking into side-street apartments while the lady's visible wealth increases.

In a related development, the naive Meg becomes the sexual quarry of Lord Darlington (Stephen Campbell Moore), a titled decadent who lives from one dangerous liaison to the next. The sooner the wife discovers the husband's affair, the better for Lord Darlington, who discreetly licks his chops in anticipation. The fifth wheel at this party is Lord Augustus, a.k.a. ''Tuppy" (Tom Wilkinson), who's an upper class twit and knows it and who decides Mrs. Erlynne will be his next wife, shady reputation or no.

That's the playing field at the start of the film, and the pleasure should be in watching the marbles roll in unexpected directions. Despite one shocking revelation (if you don't know the play) and the handful of Wildean bon mots that make it into Howard Himelstein's screenplay (says Lord Darlington, ''Marital bliss is a terrible burden to place on two people; sometimes a third person is needed to lighten the load"), ''A Good Woman" goes nowhere handsomely.

Correction: It turns into a heart-tugging melodrama of sacrifice and redemption, which isn't really what Wilde had in mind. Director Mike Barker attends to the gorgeous Italian villas and costumes, and he fills the sidelines with elderly character actors rumbling amusingly, but he seems to think ''Lady Windermere's Fan" is about the plot, and that's a major miscalculation.

The film turns serious, stranding a brave if foolhardy performance by Hunt. She gets the clear-sighted, necessary amorality of Mrs. Erlynne and the panic behind it; she understands this woman is nearing her expiration date as an object of desire. You never sense she could go in for the kill, though, and that's a crucial loss. Hunt plays her as smart, self-aware, and nice.

Johansson turns in one of her few dull performances to date as the sweet, shallow Meg, and except for Wilkinson's Tuppy, the men are sticks in evening clothes. ''A Good Woman" above all lacks the joyful, lucid anger that lights up Wilde's plays -- the sense that beneath the witticisms he's telling it like it is to people who aren't used to hearing it. Without that headlong intelligence, the movie's just an exercise in dress-up.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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