When Cachet editor Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening, "Being Julia," "Running with Scissors") tries new Saks manicurist Tanya (Debi Mazar, HBO's "Entourage") she gets more than she bargained for - news that her best friend Mary's (Meg Ryan, "In the Cut," "Against the Ropes") husband Stephen Haines is seeing the 'spritzer girl' at Saks's perfume counter. "Murphy Brown's" executive producer/writer Diane English makes her directorial debut updating George Cukor's 1939 adaptation of the Clare Boothe Luce play, "The Women."
Or so we are assured of an update, but does English's adaptation really modernize the story? In 1939, Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) was a socialite, a wealthy man's wife and mother to his children who also arranged charity functions. Her best friend Sylvia (Rosalind Russell) is a gossip who not only tells Mary's other friends, but 'tells' Mary by getting her to visit the same salon. After a trip with her mother and daughter where her mother tries to convince her to look the other way, Mary heads to Reno for a divorce. Two years later, she wins her unhappy husband, now wed to Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford), back. No male actors appear in the film.
English has put some of her women in the workplace, true, and makes one of them (Jada Pinkett Smith, "Collateral," "Reign Over Me") an out lesbian author (none of these existed in 1930's New York City?), but this doesn't feel so much a modernization as a defanging plus pandering to the "Sex and the City" crowd (the film introduces the large cast by their shoes, ferchrissakes). Here Mary Haines is a Martha Stewart type, living in her huge Connecticut home with a part-time job designing for her dad's outmoded fashion house while still doing her own cooking for charity luncheons and gardening in ridiculously inappropriate outfits. She has a housekeeper, Maggie (Cloris Leachman, "Bad Santa," "Beerfest"), and a nanny, Uta (Tilly Scott Pedersen) (for a teenaged daughter???). Sylvia claims to wish to shield Mary from the news, but lets it out friend by friend using their code word 'vault' as if that will keep it secret. Mary visits Tanya by accident and discovers the truth, then heads out on vacation with a mother (TV's "Murphy Brown," Candice Bergen, the best thing about this remake) and daughter Molly (India Ennenga) where her mother tries to convince her to turn a blind eye. Instead of heading to Reno for a divorce, this Mary calls a lawyer and goes to a yoga spa where 1939's Countess becomes an L.A. agent, played by Bette Midler like a cross between Sue Mengers and Phyllis Diller. Mary, whose father has fired her early on for 'being stretched too thin,' pulls herself up by the bootstraps and creates her own line with her mother's inheritance as backing. The notion of 'having it all' is gotten too easily, cushioned with cash. The Boho artistic mom pal, Edie Cohen (Debra Messing, TV's "Will & Grace," "The Wedding Date"), switches from pottery to painting without either appearing to lend familial income yet has the wherewithal to give her husband 'space' in his own apartment separate from the circus of his own children. No male actors appear in the film, but Cukor kept his action to interior sets - there is something ridiculous about seeing nothing but a sea of women on the streets of Manhattan.
The remake of "The Women" has been gestating for years and years, originally conceived as a vehicle for Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan and one of the worst things to have happened in intervening years is Ryan's lip job, which is so distracting it's impossible to watch the actress and notice anything else. English's lack of directorial chops can be seen in the uneven pitch of the acting, with Pinkett Smith tonally off from her fellow thesps throughout and Messing only gradually coming into the fold (her childbirth screams in the film's last scene are overblown for the good of all, a nice comic climax). Eva Mendes ("Ghost Rider," "We Own the Night"), who has been one of the more promising models-turned-actress, is simply outmatched by the original's Crawford, as can be proven when SNL's Ana Gasteyer steals a scene right out from under her as Crystal's coworker Pat. The film also features Carrie Fisher as the writer who compromises Mary and Sylvia's friendship (this time via career deal rather than the irrepressible need to gossip) and Joanna Gleason ("Crimes and Misdemeanors"), sadly relegated to a few lines as a luncheon attendee.
2008's "The Women" may have been years in the making but it takes mere hours to forget.
In 1939, George Cukor created a classic with a story about a Manhattan socialite who learns that her husband is having an affair with the perfume girl at a swanky department store. This knowledge puts in place a string of events that end in her redemption. Now, almost 70 years later, Hollywood thinks that it is time to revisit "The Women."
Both the original and its remake have one thing in common men aree never seen, only talked about. Cukor seamlessly pulled off the lack of masculine presence, with the script by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, and you don't even notice the mugs are missing. The new version, written and directed by Diane English, does not come even close to the classic, taking the action to the streets of Manhattan where, absurdly, not a man is to be seen.
Starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and a host of other femme actors too numerous to credit each, "The Women" feels manufactured and derivative. Few of the characters ring true and none have any bearing on reality. Meg Ryan, as the couture designer Mary Haines, is bubbly, perky and without dimension. Annette Bening, as Mary's best friend, tries hard but is hampered by the poorly written, poorly executed script. Eva Mendez, as perfume spritzing Crystal, pales when compared to the mega-bitch played so well by Joan Crawford in the original. The only actresses who fare at all well are the older, veterans Candice Bergman, Cloris Leachman annd Bette Midler in small, sassy roles.
Diane English is no George Cukor and the result is a film that should hit feminist buttons but only comes across as contrived. The original was Glittertown fantasy with the characters and their circumstances larger than life, just the thing that America needed at the tail end of the Great Depression. The remake does nothing to inspire or put us in a special dream place. The characters ring false, the sets feel artificial and the story, as it is, is dull. You should care about, or despise in the case of Crystal, the personalities presented. I did not.
Rather than waste your hard earned dough forking out to see "The Women" at the theater, do yourself a favor and rent the '39 classic instead. Walking out of the screening, I wished I had stayed home and watched the Cukor classic. I give the remake a D-.
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