The writer and director of "The Women," Diane English, making her directorial debut after years of working in television ("Murphy Brown," "My Sister Sam"), based her 2008 film on Claire Boothe Luce's 1936 stage success, which was subsequently filmed by George Cukor in 1939 and by David Miller as a musical in 1956 ("The Opposite Sex"). The 1939 movie featured a boatload of MGM star actresses like Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Ruth Hussey, and others who turned it into an instant classic. Ms. English tried to do the same for her remake, updating the story of rich, gossipy, backbiting New York socialites for the attitudes of the twenty-first century. To say she didn't succeed might be an understatement.
If I were an actress in Hollywood, and the studio didn't ask me to be in this picture, I think it would have offended me. Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bette Midler, Candice Bergen, Carrie Fisher, Cloris Leachman, Debi Mazar, and more appear in the show. Now, I wonder how many of them regret being asked? It is a spectacularly dull film.
I suppose you could call this the ultimate women's movie since there are literally no men in it anywhere. The men are always off someplace working or playing, leaving the women to carry the story. It's a running gag throughout the movie that no matter what the location--from restaurants to department stores to New York City sidewalks--there are only women in the scene. Unfortunately, it's a running joke that wears out its welcome all too fast.
The idea behind the story is that the women in it are largely pretentious and affected, women of leisure most of them, born into wealthy families and trying their best to fill their lives with some purpose or meaning. Ms. Luce's play and the 1939 movie did a good job spoofing these ladies, but the present film simply makes everyone in it seem thoroughly unlikable and mean spirited. It's hard to warm up to a film that has nobody in it to care about.
Meg Ryan stars as the central character, Mary Haines. We're told the character gave up a promising career in dress designing when she married a prosperous businessman and had a daughter. Now, she lives in a luxurious home in an affluent New York suburban neighborhood, doing very little with her life. This movie should have been the career boost Ms. Ryan needed after almost a decade without a solid hit, but it didn't quite turn out that way. Mary Haines is a Little Miss Sunshine type, and Ryan plays the part in her usual cute, spunky, youthful manner; yet Ryan seems just a little too mature now for cute, spunky, youthful roles, especially roles so shallow as this one. There's always next time.
Anyway, Mary's seemingly model life comes to a crashing halt when she learns that her husband is having an affair with a sexpot salesclerk and aspiring actress, Crystal Allen, played by sexy Eva Mendes. The slender plot involves Mary's and her friends' attempts to deal with her impending divorce.
Playing Mary's best friends are Annette Bening as Sylvia Fowler, the editor of a high-end women's magazine; Debra Messing as Edie Cohen, the pregnant head of a robust family; and Jada Pinkett Smith as Alex Fisher, their lesbian friend. The movie covers all the bases.
Also making brief appearances are Bette Midler as a Hollywood agent who gives Mary some advice on her life; Candice Bergen as Mary's mother, who gives her some advice on her life; Cloris Leachman as Mary's housekeeper, who gives her some advice on her life; and Carrie Fisher as a newspaper writer who doesn't advise anybody on anything.
Writer-director English tells us in an accompanying featurette that she spent quite a few years writing the screenplay, bringing it up-to-date for the modern woman. However, most of her work seems to have been for naught. For instance, in the original 1939 movie version, the women talk fast, almost as in a screwball comedy, their lines appearing spontaneous and witty. Here, the women talk more normally, and the lines fall flat. In the old movie, the characters only implied the extramarital affair, referring to it as "stepping out"; here, even though the movie carries a PG-13 rating, the women discuss sex openly and in frank, sometimes profane terms. It does not improve the story. About halfway through, the plot turns more serious and dramatic, but the result is that at this point it merely becomes gushy. And, as I mentioned earlier, one of Mary's friends is openly gay, which doesn't detract from the narrative but doesn't add anything to it, either.
The fact is, there probably isn't much going on in "The Women" that HBO's "Sex and the City" didn't already cover. Ms. English intends "The Women" to be sophisticated, insightful, and funny, but it comes off as catty, superficial, and bland. Then, the film concludes with a really tasteless, grating, desperate scene in a hospital delivery room that pretty much says it all. The film is quite disappointing, given its pedigree and its stars, proving that it's usually better to leave well enough alone.
Warner/New Line provide both a widescreen anamorphic version of the film and a pan-and-scan full-screen version on flip sides of the same disc. Neither version does much to make a lasting visual impression, but at least the widescreen format doesn't cut off the edges of the screen. (And when are studios going to drop the announcement that these P&S affairs are "formatted to fit your screen" when a high percentage of viewers are now using widescreen TVs?) That said, the colors are bright enough, but the screen looks somewhat dark and sometimes noisy, with occasional moiré effects, shimmering stripes and columns, distracting the eye. When it looks good, the picture quality is fine, and when it doesn't look good, it's average at best. Faces are often too shadowy, although close-ups display reasonably good detail.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 does little more than it has to, but because the film's audio is made up almost entirely of dialogue, there is little for it to do. There is a decent stereo spread for some of the background music, and there is a realistically balanced midrange. Otherwise, there is very little surround and almost no need for deep bass or wide dynamics.
The major bonus items on the disc are a pair of featurettes, both about eighteen minutes long. The first is "The Women: The Legacy," which compares this 2008 remake to the original 1939 Cukor film, with each comparison showing the newer movie to a disadvantage. The second featurette is "The Women Behind The Women," a promo on the making of the new film, with the writer-director assisted by a junior female journalist, the two of them trying in vain to show how relevant the film is to modern women.
The extras conclude with two additional scenes; twenty-nine scenes; access to a digital copy of the film (Windows Media-compatible only and not compatible with Apple Macintosh and Ipod devices); some trailers and promos at start-up; English as the only spoken language; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
A female fan of this remake could accuse any male critic who disliked it of simply not understanding it. Fair enough. Critics do their best to remain unbiased and look at all types of film with an open mind, from children's fare to genre flicks. Although I admit I cannot speak for women who might adore what they see in "The Women," taking it as objectively as I can and comparing it to the better films in my experience, it's hard for me to see "The Women" as anything more than mediocre at best and strident at worst.
"Nobody hates Saks!" --Annette Bening