Adultery comedies usually follow a pat formula: A perfectly sensible married person is being cheated on. Revenge is plotted, and the punishment usually involves taking advantage of the fact that the person with whom the spouse is cheating is either a gorgeous bimbo or a brainless hunk. The Other Woman is an inventive riff on this formula. There’s a sensible person and there’s a ditz, but here the sensible person is the mistress. The wife is the ditz.

Cameron Diaz, a very serious and very sexy type-A lawyer, falls for a wildly attractive banker played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (the incestuous swordsman Jaime on HBO’s Game of Thrones). She doesn’t know he’s married to Leslie Mann, an adorable chatterbox who has never had an unspoken thought.

When they both find out about the deception, the mistress retreats into cold anger and wants nothing more to do with him. The wife is another story. She won’t leave the mistress alone. She is too embarrassed to talk about the betrayal with anyone else. The wife keeps showing up at the mistress’s loft in Tribeca, sometimes with her massive Dalmatian in tow, and basically forces the creation of a friendly alliance between them.

The mistress warns the wife to toughen up, get her ducks in a row, and make preparations for what is certain to be a brutal divorce. The wife, who stopped working long ago, is entirely unprepared for the troubles that are now besetting her. The mistress, still in a rage, decides to help. The plot thickens when they learn Coster-Waldau has yet another girlfriend, a drop-dead gorgeous 21-year-old played by the model Kate Upton, whom they befriend as well.

This is the first produced screenplay by a young writer named Melissa K. Stack, who displays a terrific sense of how to build a character and how to give these performers a chance to shine. The standout here is Leslie Mann, who does so many wonderful things with her meaty part that there aren’t sufficient superlatives to praise her comic timing, her always unexpected way with a line of dialogue, and her wild grace as a physical comedienne.

Mann, who is 42, has had a very interesting career. She first popped up in the 1990s as a hot chick with a voice that sounded as though she’d swallowed helium. Then she all but vanished for a decade as she raised two children with her husband, the writer-director Judd Apatow. In 2005, he cast her in a one-scene role in his breakout movie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, as Steve Carell’s crazy and drunken blind date, who screams “let’s get some French toast” as she smashes up her car. She was so sensational you could practically hear everybody in the movie theater thinking, “Wow, who is that?”

Apatow featured her again in Knocked Up (2007), in a dazzling send-up of herself as a sharp and brittle former-party-girl-turned-L.A.-mom—and then as an overly dramatic former actress in the brilliant Funny People (2009), the most underrated movie of our time. At the very least, The Other Woman proves that Mann doesn’t need Apatow to excel on screen; there is no other actress, save, perhaps, Melissa McCarthy, who can generate as many laughs as Mann can.

Cameron Diaz, whose involvement got the movie made in the first place, proves herself an exceptionally generous actress. She understands that she’s basically the straight man here, the George Burns to Leslie Mann’s Gracie Allen, and taking the less flashy and more straightforward part is a very difficult thing for a movie star to do. It is easy to overlook just how good she is here, because she is so convincing both in her icy hauteur and in her slow melt.

Like Mann, the movie’s director, Nick Cassavetes, has had an almost unclassifiable career. His credits include the delirious romantic drama The Notebook (2004), which made a matinee idol out of Ryan Gosling, and the horrifying Alpha Dog (2006), a true-crime story about the kidnapping and murder of a 15-year-old boy in Los Angeles that was witnessed by 38 people who did nothing to stop it. Nothing in Cassavetes’s past work suggested the facility for slick comedy he displays in The Other Woman.

Alas, as the movie moves into its third act, The Other Woman turns into a flaccid, uncredited remake of the sprightly 1996 Goldie Hawn/Bette Midler/Diane Keaton comedy The First Wives Club. But until then, it’s a really fresh and surprising variation on one of the oldest comic tropes in the book.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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