The Women (Picturehouse, PG-13)

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film_women_sm.jpgThe empowerment aspect of the story is entirely unbelievable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

film_women.jpg 

Way back in 1994, New Line Cinema announced that they were producing a remake of George Cukor's classic 1939 bitchfest The Women. Fourteen years and many cast changes later, the remake finally made it to the big screen, directed by Diane English (creator of Murphy Brown) with an all-star (and all female) cast including Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Eva Mendes and Jada Pinkett Smith.

The delay is not as surprising as the fact that a remake of The Women was even under consideration. Cukor created one of the funniest films of all time, and also one of the most politically incorrect; to enjoy the humor, you have to take it in the patently artificial context of Depression-era Hollywood comedies. Any attempt to bring the story into the present day is fraught with peril, because at its heart lies the assumption that women's lives revolve entirely around men.

Mary (Meg Ryan) seems to have it all: a career as a clothing designer, a successful husband and charming 12-year-old daughter (India Ennenga), and a huge house in Connecticut staffed by a housekeeper (Cloris Leachman) and nanny (Tilly Scott Pederson). She even finds time to do charity work and pal around with her girlfriends Sylvie (Annette Bening), Edie (Debra Messing) and Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith).

Then it all comes crashing down. Mary learns her husband is having an affair with "spritzer girl" (perfume saleswoman) and aspiring actress Crystal (Eva Mendes in the Joan Crawford role, which is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures in the original film). Her friends advise confrontation and revenge, while her mother (Candice Bergen, who brings real humanity to this minor role) advises her to take a few weeks off to cool down, which stretches into an extended period of soul searching.

English also wrote the screenplay, which updates Claire Booth Luce's quips and reshapes the story into an uplifting tale of female empowerment and the lasting bonds of friendship. Unfortunately, the new material works uneasily with the old, producing a film often at war with itself.

Cinematic style is part of the problem: The Women often seems like a forced amalgam of Sex in the City and The First Wives Club, with a Disney-esque triumph over adversity tacked on to give the film some heft, and a lipstick lesbian character thrown in to make it seem up to date. By way of contrast, Cukor's film remained close to its stage origins (The Women was a hit play on Broadway before it was filmed) and made no claim to be anything but entertaining.

The most disappointing aspect of The Women is how few laughs it delivers. The screenplay is chock-full of theoretically funny lines, but most of the time they fall flat. Delivering one-liners is an art unto itself, one which most of the stars of The Women have not mastered. The great exception is Bette Midler, who gets more laughs in five minutes than the rest of the cast does in two hours. I suspect the years she spent performing on stage (and in the bathhouses) have something to do with that.

The empowerment aspect of the story is entirely unbelievable. Having seen her life fall apart, Mary decides to create her own fashion line. Before you know it, she's a regular Narciso Rodriguez and a buyer from Saks wants to stock her clothes. This is the equivalent of Rudy not just coming off the bench to make a tackle in a meaningless college game, but making the big play to win the Super Bowl.

Of course it helps that Mary has unlimited funds to work with, courtesy of her mom's inheritance. English updated the script to give the characters careers, albeit in improbably glamorous fields, but does not explore the distinctions between those who must work for their living (a motivating force behind the chief betrayal in the plot) and those for whom work is optional. But that would kill the buzz; these glamour gals live in a fantasy New York where everyone is beautiful and dressed in the latest fashions. Far more jarring than the absence of males on screen is the absence of poverty, or even normal working people, on the streets of Manhattan.

A broken friendship is mended equally improbably, in a scene which almost qualifies as a parody of the "first they're fighting, then they're kissing" cliché. And the four pals are brought together for the final scene, the bloodless but scream-filled birth of Edie's fifth child, played for maximum (and tasteless) laughs. I shouldn't even have to say this, but not all lesbians find children and childbirth disgusting; many are mothers themselves. What's next, a revival of Sambo and Hymie jokes?

The screening audience, however, found the childbirth scene hilarious. Perhaps they were just relieved at having something to laugh at after two hours of upscale female bonding, unbonding and rebonding. | Sarah Boslaugh

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