George Cukor’s 1939 film version of Clare Boothe Luce’s play The Women is a magnificent piece of cinema, but it’s a movie very much of its time, and even if Diane English’s remake weren’t a failure on a number of aesthetic levels, it’d still have a tough time remaining true to the spirit of the original without coming off as horribly retrograde and anti-feminist.
Luckily, Murphy Brown creator English, making her feature-film debut as a writer and director, botches enough other things about her unnecessary update that the old-fashioned message about gender relations actually ends up coming off as sort of sensible and natural. When you have characters as shrill and self-centered as the ones on display here, asserting that they ought to shut up and forgive their men for marital indiscretions doesn’t sound like such an unfair proposition.
If you had to put up with whiny Connecticut wife Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) or bitchy Manhattan magazine editor Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening), you too would probably crawl into the arms of a sexy, undermanding younger mistress. That’s just what Mary’s husband Steven does to set off the events of the movie, as he does in the original.
Also as in the original, English’s film features not a single male onscreen (save a newborn at the very end), and what in Cukor’s version is a marvelous sustained exercise in narrative acrobatics here just comes off as a strained gimmick. One of the original’s best scenes involves two of the Haines’ domestic employees recounting the couple’s blow-up over his affair; it says as much about the inner lives of those minor characters as it does about Mary’s tortured relationship, and does it all without having its two main players even appear. Here that scene is about half as long and entirely lacks punch—it’s a limp exercise in moving the plot forward, and highlights English’s weak, lumbering writing. Cloris Leachman offers nothing but shtick as Mary’s maid, and Danish actress Tilly Scott Pedersen is inert as the tutor to Mary’s young daughter.
Their parts are small but indicative of the generally subpar acting on display here. The original, with stars including Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard and Joan Crawford, was a dazzling showcase for deft performances bringing fully realized characters to life, even if they eventually had to conform to certain expected gender roles. Ryan and Bening seem lost, desperate to convey emotions that they can’t access, and English only gives them stale power-woman stereotypes to play. Both also look unnaturally taut, and it doesn’t help that their characters complain several times about other people’s unsightly plastic surgery.
Debra Messing, doing her standard flustered, absent-minded goof routine, and Jada Pinkett Smith, embodying one of the film’s nods to modernity as the token lesbian, are gratingly one-note as the pair’s secondary friends. Eva Mendes, in a smaller role than Crawford had in the original, looks hot but isn’t nearly hateful enough as Steven’s shopgirl mistress (she is, of course, no Joan Crawford).
We probably wouldn’t even be seeing this movie, which has been delayed for quite some time, if it weren’t for the success of Sex and the City convincing studio executives that there was an audience for it, but even Carrie Bradshaw would probably tell these women to shut up and stop their bellyaching (not to mention groan at the clueless subplot about Sylvia’s travails in the magazine world). When her mother advises forgiving Steven’s affair, Mary asks incredulously, “What is this, a 1930s movie?” Clearly not.