Longtime Murphy Brown scribe Diane English dips her toes into bigger waters as she attempts to remake The Women, George Cukor's 1939 comedy classic that saw housewives Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell face off against shopgirl/mistress Joan Crawford. In English's estrogen-enhanced retooling, it is now Meg Ryan and Annette Bening, career girls flanked by lesbian Jada Pinkett-Smith and mommy Debra Messing, up against husband-baiting "spritz girl" Eva Mendes. Unfair and useless comparisons between the legendary Cukor and newbie English aside, this movie had me for a solid ten minutes before I was considering throwing myself head-first into a tank of Venezuelan red-bellied piranhas.
Like Cukor's film, English's effort boasts an all-female cast that ranges from raging, single Manhattanites to pot-smoking, transplanted Angelenos to Connecticut-rich ladies who lunch. The latter would be Mary Haines (Ryan), a fashion designer who gets the axe from her father after expecting him to hand over the keys to the castle. Before Mary even finds out, her best friend Sylvia (Bening) receives drive-by gossip about Mary's husband's affair with a counter girl at Saks named (appropriately) Crystal (Mendes). Mary's mother (Candice Bergen) expected it, and her lesbian friend Alex (Pinkett-Smith) wants to convert her. Needless to say, she finds her way through the fog of familial uprooting and finds herself a better mother, friend, and daughter for it.
The marketing for The Women suggests that ladies should grab their best girls and head on over to the local multiplex after a few mojitos and just make a night of it, discovering that intangible thing that binds all women. That night-on-the-town is just about all English's film is good for and it quantifies it less as a movie than a polite Hallmark card in sparkly-red glitter: "You Always Have Your Girls!" My notion, or perhaps just my hope, is that most women will find this flagrantly inept and at least somewhat oafish. Fake orgasms, tampons, shoe-shopping, mani-pedis, oral sex, and a few dozen Men Are Pigs outursts: No cliché, no matter how it screams and pleads for mercy, makes it out of this baby untapped.
Is it possible that the average female moviegoer wants nothing more than to watch other women shop, cry, and scream at each other? Earlier this year, I had a similar volatile reaction to Sex and the City: The Movie, and there's little doubt that The Women will appeal to a similar mindset, though its aim more pointed to the middle-aged gal. Aptly, it's the grand madames that come off as the least cloying. Bergen and Leachman have an ease with their comedic skills that seems to retain a slight respectability, even as they grapple with English's bumbling dialogue. They're both actresses of a more refined time and it shows, but it still doesn't excuse the bumper-sticker feminism that English is trying to pass off as honest-to-god camaraderie.
What English lacks, above all, is clarity and focus. The actual story being told here is quite simple: a wife loses her husband to a younger girl, struggles and ultimately uses the event to stage her own sort of rebirth. That was the story, to some degree, that Cukor was telling back in 1939. But with English's newfangled take on The Women comes the argument that, despite what Godard would have us believe, a woman is not a woman. Now she unfortunately has to be, as Whitney Houston would say, every woman.
Yay, frozen yogurt!