One of those projects that seems to have gestated too long—or maybe shouldn’t have been attempted in the first place—The Women isn’t bad, just dreadfully uninspired. Glib without being particularly clever, featuring actresses who will not make anyone forget Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, stars of the 1939 George Cukor classic, writer-director Diane English’s movie is an object example of what happens when a talent steeped in sitcom (in this case, “Murphy Brown”) attempts to expand her range. The sitcom mentality wins out almost every time.
Plot-wise, the new film hews rather closely to the Clare Boothe Luce play, first adapted for the screen by Anita Loos. Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) believes she has a perfect marriage, but finds her husband is cheating on her with Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes), a saleswoman at Saks. Mary’s friends—women’s magazine editor Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening), author Miriam Arons (Jada Pinkett Smith) and eternally pregnant Edith Potter (Debra Messing)—rally around the poor girl and give her the guts to confront the va-va-voomish Crystal. In the meantime, Sylvia is having work issues, Miriam has to deal with a very nasty supermodel girlfriend, and Edith is hoping this one will finally be a boy.
Yet plot isn’t as important here as attitude, and that’s where The Women comes in a distant second to the original. Yes, it’s often unfair to make comparisons—ideally, every work should be judged on its own merits—but in this case, comparisons are not only inevitable, but mandated. So even though English’s screenplay is filled with one-liners (some of them quite good), it is more chuckle-worthy than knife-like and sarcastic. And she certainly has no one in the cast who can match the snappy acting style of the great Rosalind Russell, or the cattiness of Joan Crawford. Candice Bergen, in a rather small role as Ryan’s mom, does have the world-weary cynicism required, and actually rips off the film’s best lines. (Referring to a woman with one of those scary/tight plastic surgeries, Bergen says she “looks like she’s re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.”)
English has also made the mistake of writing a final scene (no spoilers here) in which she attempts to wrap up all the plot strands at once. It is contrived, overwrought and just plain ridiculous, the kind of thing you might expect in a 22-minute sitcom rushing towards commercial. And English seems to have cast the project to attract the broadest demographic possible, which makes The Women an unwieldy combination of talent and acting styles. Pinkett Smith is totally out of place—and awful—as a hip black lesbian author whose friendship with the other women seems unexplainable. Former “Will & Grace” star Messing can’t stop playing to the small screen, and gives a performance that is overly broad. Mendes is around to look good in lingerie (her bombshell act seems to be a parody of blatant sexuality), and Ryan is sympathetic but a bit frantic as Mary. Poor Annette Bening, who does the best work in the film, will unfortunately be judged alongside Meryl Streep’s bitchy women’s magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada, and suffer by comparison.
It’s not that Luce’s work isn’t ripe for a remake—any piece more than 60 years old which attempts to say something about its time can certainly be brought into the present day. But English’s style is so feathery-light, so multiplex-ready, it refuses to linger in the mind for any reason whatsoever. It should have had the bracing effect of a straight shot of tequila. But The Women is packaged vanilla pudding.