SADLY, AS SAFE AS A SIT­COM

‘THE WOMEN’ OF AN EAR­LIER ERA HAD A SENSE OF STYLE THAT THIS RE­MAKE LACKS

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Go See - By John Bei­fuss / bei­fuss@com­mer­cialap­peal.com

THE FA­MOUS OPEN­ING cred­its of di­rec­tor Ge­orge Cukor’s 1939 film “The Women” con­nects each of the MGM star­lets in the cast with a par­tic­u­lar type of an­i­mal. Norma Shearer’s name is ac­com­pa­nied by a shot of a wide- eyed, in­no­cent doe; Joan Craw­ford is rep­re­sented as a stylish preda­tor, a leop­ard.

The an­i­mal that gets the most screen time in writer- di­rec­tor Diane English’s re­make of “The Women” is that big ol’ friendly crit­ter that seems to ap­pear in al­most ev­ery mod­ern do­mes­tic com­edy or drama. You’re prob­a­bly think­ing “Den­nis Quaid,” but I’m talk­ing about an Ir­ish set­ter; the dog’s early en­trance tells us that what­ever the movie’s strengths and as­pi­ra­tions, the 2008 ver­sion of “The Women” ul­ti­mately will prove as re­as­sur­ing as a sit­com.

Sadly, this re­make also is as style- de­prived as a TV com­edy. The les­son of the orig­i­nal ver­sion of “The Women” may cause some dis­tress in a mod­ern au­di­ence (“a woman in love” can’t af­ford “pride,” Shearer dis­cov­ers), but Cukor’s film was drip­ping with not just wit but style. English’s brightly lighted up­scale “re­al­ism” is a sorry sub­sti­tute, as any di­rect com­par­i­son demon­strates: In 1939, Craw­ford lux­u­ri­ates in a tub that ap­pears to have been de­signed by Aphrodite and Po­sei­don dur­ing an­cient Greece’s Art Deco phase; in 2008, Eva Men­des bathes in a rec­tan­gle that might have been in­stalled by Home De­pot. (“What do you think this is, some kind of 1930s movie?” Meg Ryan asks at one point. If only.)

Such dis­tinc­tions may not mat­ter to the de­mo­graphic that is likely to make a date with “The Women” af­ter ear­lier this year turn­ing out for “Sex and the City,” the

movie. How can it re­sist? One of the stated mes­sages in the new ver­sion of “The Women” is that the mod­ern fe­male, con­trary to women’s mag­a­zine pro­pa­ganda, can’t re­ally have it all; “I don’t want it all — it’s too ex­haust­ing,” one char­ac­ter ad­mits. But English’s film does try to have it all: The is­sues it cov­ers in­clude in­fi­delity, moth­er­hood, les­bian­ism, teenage peer pres­sure, cos­metic surgery, ca­reer choices, ageism, di­vorce and child­birth, to name a few. The heroine, played with charm by Meg Ryan, is as busy as the sce­nario she oc­cu­pies: Not only is she a wife and mom, but she’s a would-be fash­ion de­signer and a com­mu­nity ac­tivist who cooks for 60 when she hosts a fundraiser; we also learn she re­cently re-tiled her bath­room.

This woman is Mary Haines, and she is shocked to dis­cover her hus­band is hav­ing an af­fair with a sexy store clerk named Crys­tal Allen (Eva Men­des). This news is met with hor­ror as well as some mor­bid glee by Mary’s all-star cir­cle of friends, rel­a­tives and sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing her acer­bic house­keeper (Cloris Leach­man); her mother (a dead­pan Candice Ber­gen, who nails her lines); her teenage daugh­ter (In­dia En­nenga); a pro­cre­ation-ad­dicted Earth Mother (De­bra Mess­ing); a mag­a­zine ed­i­tor (An­nette Ben­ing); and a les­bian (an ut­terly hu­mor­less Jada Pin­kett Smith, who con­veys her char­ac­ter’s sex­u­al­ity by scowl­ing, slouch­ing and drop­pin’ her G’s).

The gos­sip-mon­ger­ing ed­i­tor, Sylvia Fowler, is Mary’s best friend, and a ma­jor change from the orig­i­nal film is that their fall­ing out is pre­sented as more tragic than Mary’s sep­a­ra­tion from her hus­band. Without her friend to lean on, Mary says, she feels as if she is suf­fer­ing from “phan­tom limb syn­drome.”

As a cel­e­bra­tion of sis­ter­hood, “The Women” is even more testos­terone-free than “Sex and the City” or “The Sis­ter­hood of the Trav­el­ing Pants 2”: The gim­mick of Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 Broad­way play, re­peated here as well as in the 1939 film (scripted by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin), is that not a sin­gle man is in the cast. The women spend much of their time ob­sess­ing over men, but the males re­main off­stage, in­vis­i­ble — a sta­tus that doesn’t di­lute their in­flu­ence on the char­ac­ters.

The play and first film of “The Women” were justly famed for the catty snip­ing of the di­a­logue. English keeps many of the best lines, but in new con­texts, they lose their zing. In 1939, Craw­ford told her high-so­ci­ety neme­ses: “There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high so­ci­ety — out­side of a ken­nel.” English seems to think that be­cause “bitch” is now a com­mon word, that line has lost its snap, but in fact, its re­straint makes it more ef­fec­tive than ever in the era of the potty mouth; it’s cer­tainly much more mem­o­rable than any­thing Eva Men­des ac­tu­ally ut­ters in the new movie. In any case, English rewrites the line and re­as­signs it to Ben­ing — who ad­dresses it to an ac­tual dog.

English’s orig­i­nal di­a­logue is al­ter­nately mem­o­rable and weak. “The pop­u­la­tion of Salem just dropped,” Leach­man’s char­ac­ter quips, af­ter sev­eral women show up for a lun­cheon at Mary’s house. That’s a good line. But then the door­bell rings, and Leach­man un­for­tu­nately keeps talk­ing: “Keep your Won­der­bras on.”

This re­make of “The Women” had a ges­ta­tion pe­riod of close to 15 years (in the 1990s, Ju­lia Roberts was set to star), so per­haps it’s no sur­prise that for all its post­fem­i­nist rhetoric, the movie ends up cel­e­brat­ing child­birth as the ne plus ul­tra of fem­i­nine ex­pe­ri­ence. This may be ap­pro­pri­ate and even bi­o­log­i­cally un­de­ni­able, but English takes it to a sur­pris­ing con­clu­sion. The movie’s one-scene-too-many end se­quence not only fudges the project’s XX- chro­mo­some ex­clu­siv­ity but, weirdly, of­fers a mes­sage that Henry VIII could en­dorse.

Pho­tos by Claudette Bar­ius/Pic­ture­house

In­dia En­nenga plays daugh­ter to Meg Ryan and grand­daugh­ter to acer­bic Candice Ber­gen in di­rec­tor Diane English’s re­make of “The Women.”

An­nette Ben­ing plays a gos­sipy mag­a­zine ed­i­tor, Jada Pin­kett Smith plays a hu­mor­less les­bian, and De­bra Mess­ing plays a pro­lific Earth Mother in “The Women.”

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