SADLY, AS SAFE AS A SITCOM
‘THE WOMEN’ OF AN EARLIER ERA HAD A SENSE OF STYLE THAT THIS REMAKE LACKS
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.
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.”