Even though The Women — written, produced, and directed by Diane English — is a modernization of Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 play and George Cukor's 1939 movie, it still feels curiously like it's from another time: the '80s. The film's talky, sparsely edited scenes and excessively opulent (but not hip) New York City set pieces evoke Rich and Famous (Cukor's 1981 remake of Old Acquaintance) more than Sex and the City. The high-gloss look and feel of Reagan-era escapism still intoxicates, in a white zinfandel sort of way, as does the film's high-powered cast. Unfortunately, The Women's screenplay is dead. And buried.
The Women's 1930s incarnations followed a group of ladies who — too intelligent for their imposed roles as housewives and shopgirls — devoted their excess cleverness to giddily destroying one another's lives. English has cut the characters' jungle-red claws for these post-feminist times. In the original versions, the best friends of saintly protagonist Mary Haines (now played by Meg Ryan) can't wait to knock her off her high horse with vicious gossip when they find out about her husband's affair. In the current version, they can't wait to support her through her hard times. It doesn't work.
English has kept a surprising number of famous scenes and dialogue tidbits from Cukor's film. However, they lose their hilarious bite when delivered with an undercurrent of girl power. The recycled scenes now induce the uneasy feeling of watching a square peg being stuffed into a round hole. Meanwhile, the remake's contemporary feminist "insights" such as "Men are intimidated by strong women" are relayed so overtly and with so little originality that they seem clichéd and diminished.
The remake also adds a twist in which Mary's best friend, Sylvie (Annette Bening), shakes up their relationship by selling Mary's tragic story to an evil, elliptical-riding gossip columnist (Carrie Fisher). We already saw a betrayal break up a close friendship — more believably and engrossingly — in this year's Sex and the City. In The Women, as soon as Fisher starts to speak, we can hear the creaky wheels of a contrived subplot slowly turning.
The film features a dazzling array of female stars who were more famous in previous decades, all of whom remain more compelling and memorable than most of the actors on today's A-list, including Eva Mendes, who makes villainy seem mundane. For the first 20 minutes, it seems like the joy of watching great comediennes (Bening, Fisher, Candice Bergen, Bette Midler, Debra Messing, and Cloris Leachman) might compensate for the film's immediately obvious lack of comedic substance. However, even they can't resuscitate these noncharacters or this plodding narrative.
I almost want to beg you and everyone I know to go see The Women anyway. I fear that if this movie bombs at the box office, it will give the studios yet another excuse to stop green-lighting major Hollywood movies made by and about multiple generations of women. So here's my suggestion: Buy a ticket for The Women, consider it an investment in the future, and sneak into something else. Given the talent behind it, the movie's failure is maddening, depressing, and all but incomprehensible. It's a crime against chick-flick lovers everywhere.
Written and directed by: Diane English
Starring: Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing