The Women

Movie Information

The Story: A wealthy New York City society woman divorces her husband over his affair with a salesgirl who works at Saks. The Lowdown: A largely unfunny, ill-advised and completely unnecessary version of The Women that squanders the talent of its cast.
Genre: Soapy Dramatic Comedy
Director: Diane English
Starring: Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Candice Bergen
Rated: PG-13

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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5 thoughts on “The Women

  1. Steve

    I’ve been looking for a review by a critic who loved the 1939 version as much as I do, but haven’t seen one. I own the old movie, and just watched it again last week. Can I interpret this review as a “don’t bother”? The cast did look good, but frankly, replacing Norma Shearer with Meg Ryan always struck me as replacing high-test gas with Kool-Ade.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Can I interpret this review as a “don’t bother”?

    I think that’s especially true if you love the 1939 film. I like the 1939 film, but I’m not morbid about it. (The Technicolor fashion show could go, some of the acting (yes, I am speaking to you, Rosalind Russell) is just too broad, etc.) Now, if you are completely sold on the Cukor version, I imagine this would have all the charm of being swatted in the face with a large mackerel.

  3. Steve

    I do love the Cukor version. Yes, Rosalind Russel is over the top, but I love it. I love it when she licks her lips before biting Paulette Goddard – like she’s going to eat fried chicken or something. I even appreciate the fashion show insert because of the history aspect of it (the change to Technicolor,)and just because it is so ridiculous. “Lumiere – musique!” Following the “female form divine”. Priceless.

    I’ll wait until I can see this for free on a friend’s DVD. He buys everything. Then I can excoriate it on my blog – with Jungle Red claws.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I even appreciate the fashion show insert because of the history aspect of it (the change to Technicolor,)

    Well, it’s not of all that much significance historically, since Technicolor sequences in largely black and white films weren’t all that unusual. Even silents like Phantom of the Opera and Ben Hur had them, while early musicals such as The Cuckoos and Paramount on Parade would suddenly go color for a production number. One of the oddest was the choice of shooting the last scene of the George Arliss historical drama House of Rothschild in color — presumably just to show off the recently perfected three-strip Technicolor process. When I was a kid, The Women was usually seen without the fashion show. I think it helped.

    In any case, you’re not likely to have much trouble eviscerating the remake on your blog. For maximum discomfort, track down the 1950s version, The Opposite Sex, which shows up on TCM from time to time. That one makes the odd choice of showing the men.

  5. Steve

    Actually, I’ve seen The Opposite Sex. It was pretty vile. Even if you did get to see Buck Winston.

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