Based on the blisteringly bad early reviews of Diane English’s revamp of The Women, I fully expected the film to have all the devils of hell in it and Ms. English to have secured the position of the Uwe Boll of women’s pictures. In truth, all I found was a wrongheaded, glossy mediocrity—a perfect companion piece to the summer’s earlier offerings of Sex and the City and Mamma Mia!. It’s not as shallow as the former or as shrill as the latter, but the tone isn’t far afield. The biggest difference is that there are actual glimmerings of talent on the part of Diane English, who, I suspect, is a victim of the film’s gestation period.
English has been trying to bring her version of The Women to the screen for 14 years. I wonder how different what we finally got is from what she originally intended? It certainly feels like something that’s been tweaked and prodded and poked at until nearly nothing remained of what made the original 1936 play by Clare Boothe Luce and George Cukor’s subsequent 1939 film version such an enjoyable bitch fest. What English is left with is the basic plot (which is no great shakes) and the central gimmick of an all-female cast. Neither the play nor Cukor’s film is exactly great art. They’re brittle, arch and as artificial as a good lacquering of the play’s “Jungle Red” fingernail polish, but they’re fun and funny. English’s film is mostly neither.
English’s big mistake—apart from trying to drag the 72-year-old material into the present—lies in her apparent determination to misrepresent Luce’s intentions. Luce disliked the New York City socialites that inhabit her play. They were representative of the type of women she—as wife of Time magazine founder Henry Luce—knew all too well, and the play set out to satirize and mock them. It was successful at this—the opening title of Cukor’s film boldly announces that the play ran for 666 performances (this was before horror fiction made that biblical number common currency). English, on the other hand, likes the characters and wants you to like them, too. What once was a bitch-a-thon of silly women behaving badly is here a pretty lackluster female-empowerment yarn of the “sisters are doing it for themselves” variety. That may be admirable, but it’s not the play, and it’s not a lot of fun.
Reworking the material in this manner effectively removes most of the best lines from the play and the old movie. No one threatens to spit in anyone’s eye with the caveat “and where I spit no grass grows,” and there are no knockdown drag-out catfights (pelting someone in the back of the head with a banana doesn’t count). In fact, all the characters have been softened. Some of the material needed changing—in 2008 rich women getting divorces don’t flock to dude ranches in Reno till their decree nisi becomes final—but English hasn’t replaced what she removed with much. Strangely, the line “There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in polite society outside of kennels” is retained (way out of context), and that’s one of the most dated lines there is.
What’s left is the bare-bones story of Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) being cheated on by her husband, who’s having an affair with Saks perfume saleswoman Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes)—here dubbed the “perfume bitch,” thereby rendering the retention of the kennel joke even more irrelevant. Mary’s gal pals both help and hinder her. Divorce ensues, followed by complications and predictable results, which are passably painless up till the abominable last reel with its childbirth subplot and tired tying-up-the-plot tropes.
The cast does what it can with the material. Meg Ryan is good. Annette Bening is better, but would have been better still had her character not been declawed and spayed. Jada Pinkett Smith is wasted as the film’s improbable token lesbian, who seems to be from another world altogether. Candice Bergen adds some badly needed gravity as Mary’s mother, while reliable Bette Midler shows up to breathe real life into the proceedings—for five full minutes of screen time—during which her character, Leah Miller, gives good advice to Mary. (Leah is much more central to the plot in the original.) On the other hand, Eva Mendes is out of her depth as Crystal, and English’s attempts to soften Crystal are frankly incomprehensible and unworkable. All in all, the star-studded cast is but another superfluous aspect of a superfluous film. Rated PG-13 for sex-related material, language, some drug use and brief smoking.