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What went wrong with The Woman in the Window?

Netflix’s flashy, star-studded new drama is a big old dud.

A woman looks out a window from behind some gold-colored curtains.
Amy Adams in The Woman in the Window.
Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

You’d be forgiven for wondering if The Woman in the Window is just trolling you in its earliest moments, when a voice on the other end of a phone conversation coaxes Anna (Amy Adams) paternalistically. “Why not make today the day that you go outside?” the voice suggests. Oof.

Anna has developed anxiety and agoraphobia due to trauma, the details of which unfurl later in the film but have nothing to do with viruses stalking her west Harlem neighborhood and the rest of the world. Some day we’ll hear lines like this and not immediately sigh with recognition, but for now, they hit a little close to home.

Anyhow, despite being about a woman who can’t leave her house, spends all day swanning about in oversized, shapeless housedresses, and is obsessed with watching her neighbors, The Woman in the Window was never meant to reflect pandemic-era reality. The film is all tied up with the Before Times. It’s based on the 2018 novel of the same name, written by “A.J. Finn” — the pen name of Dan Mallory, the writer whose myriad fabrications about his life were exposed a year after the book debuted at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. And then something went awry in the movie adaptation.

Originally slated for release in October 2019, right in the awards-contender sweet spot, The Woman in the Window was delayed after test audiences found it baffling. (“Oh my God. There were some plot points that people found a bit confusing. I would say possibly too opaque maybe,” director Joe Wright told Entertainment Weekly. “So we had to go back and clarify certain points, but I think also we tried to make sure we didn’t oversimplify anything and make things too clear.”)

So producer Scott Rudin — about whom many harrowing tales of abuse have surfaced in recent months — had the movie recut, aiming for a May 2020 release date.

And then the pandemic happened. Movie release dates were bumped all over the place. Eventually Netflix bought the film from Disney, whose 20th Century Studios had planned to release it theatrically. So now The Woman in the Window, supposedly new and improved, has arrived on your TV.

A woman in a pink robe looks out her window.
Amy Adams in The Woman in the Window.
Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

And watching it, you have to wonder exactly what kind of a movie anyone thought they were making. The film’s pedigree is impeccable. It’s directed by Wright (Anna Karenina, Atonement), written by virtuosic and multi-award-winning playwright Tracy Letts, with a score by Danny Elfman and a killer cast: Adams, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julianne Moore, Letts, Wyatt Russell, the list goes on. The house it’s set in is quite lovely. There’s a lot of wine and clips from old movies playing on Anna’s TV. The Woman in the Window is clearly going for something.

But instead it is inert, and for no good reason. The plot has the makings of a good twisty thriller — a woman is trapped in her house, maybe losing her grip on reality. We are seeing things through her eyes. Are there crimes being committed all around her? Is she hallucinating? Or is she simply starved for attention?

Whatever happened in translating that plot to the screen simply doesn’t work. Alfred Hitchcock is not so much evoked as dragged into the room and pointed at vigorously, as if this film can convince you it’s a taut psychosexual thriller just by referencing some really good ones. A better version of this movie (or at least a more watchable one) would either have been more restrained — Wright’s comments about the original cut of the film lead me to believe that was initially the plan — or just leaned all the way in the other direction into full-on camp.

A weirder and wackier tale does occasionally attempt to bust out. Anna’s housedresses made me wonder if she’d tip into Norma Desmond territory (a role I’d love to see someone let Adams play). Certain shots are obviously ripped from Rear Window, but the climax lacks the gaspy, heart-pounding terror of that film, or the creepy, creeping dread of Psycho. The obsessions aren’t obsessive enough, the threats are paltry, and the mysteries not all that mysterious.

In the end, The Woman in the Window’s lessons are more meta than textual. You can assemble the best team of filmmakers and stars on the planet — or at least a really good one — and still make a flop that nobody knows how to fix. How can so many talented people work on a film and not quite see what they’ve got on their hands? Well, maybe we’ve all lost a little bit of our grip on reality lately. Maybe The Woman in the Window is peak pandemic-era entertainment after all.

The Woman in the Window is streaming on Netflix.

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