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Women, The (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 12 September 2008
Though arriving with some negative advance buzz, “The Women” turns out to be a pleasing, star-laden comedy, not a major winner, but worth seeing. It stumbles along the way, mostly due to Diane English’s inexperience as a movie director—this is her first outing—and her long experience in television (she created and ran “Murphy Brown”). Too often scenes play like those in sitcoms, with acting a shade too broad, and setups and payoff punch lines. Sometimes, even the skilled actresses here seem a little amateurish—startling when it’s Annette Bening—but that’s probably due to English’s inexperience with movie acting, too. But it’s a warm, good-hearted movie that leaves you feeling glad you saw it.

It’s based on Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 play and the 1939 movie, adapted from the play by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. That movie is a classic, with top-notch performances by an all-female cast. (It was remade musically in the fifties as “The Opposite Sex,” but then the cast included some men.) The play and original movie were funny, acid-etched satires; Luce was very familiar with the wealthy society women of Manhattan, and viewed them with satirical contempt. But this new movie is somewhat fangless in this regard—we’re supposed to like all the women we meet, except husband-snatching Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes). The relationship between lead characters Mary (Meg Ryan) and Sylvie (Bening) has been softened from edgy rivalry to a life-long friendship that hits a rocky stretch.

The plot follows the outline of the classic 1939 movie, directed by George Cukor, whose last movie was Meg Ryan’s first—and in it she played the daughter of Candice Bergen, as she does again here. Mary Haines lives in an upscale New York suburb, happily married to Wall Street bigshot Steven (we never see or hear him or any other man). Mary’s a joiner, active in all kinds of charitable organizations, working for her father, constantly busy in her own garden, but tries to spend time with her early-teens daughter Molly (India Ennenga). Maggie (Cloris Leachman) is Mary’s long-time housekeeper, who does her best to keep from becoming involved in her employer’s private life (but, of course, fails). Mary’s still close to her mother Catherine (Candice Bergen), long separated from Mary’s father, a clothing manufacturer. Mary works hard for him, but the movie has barely started when her father fires her.

Sylvie is the editor of Cachet, a Vogue-like woman’s magazine, and is having some difficulties holding onto her job, but she’s in there plugging. However, she does have time to drop by Saks for a manicure. The movie opens with a mildly amusing scene with computer-like graphics from Sylvie’s point of view as she evaluates (“must buy!” “Fake!”) everything she passes. Her manicurist is gabby Tanya (Debi Mazar), a die-hard gossip who happily blabs the news that her friend Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes), a “perfume spritzer” at Saks, is having an affair with Steven Haines.

Horrified, Sylvie rushes to the home of their friend Edie (Debra Messing), who already has four daughters—with, we soon learn, another baby on the way. Sylvie tries to keep from spilling the beans to Edie, but can’t help herself. After a big afternoon fund-raiser at Mary’s home, Sylvie—who’s unmarried—Edie and their stylish lesbian pal Alex Fisher (Jada Pinkett Smith) head out to Mary’s, trying hard to keep the bad news secret.
But later in Manhattan, Mary herself drops in at Saks for a manicure and, of course, gets Tanya who, of course, reveals the whole thing. Mary is stunned; she’s never had any reason to suspect Steven of straying. Meanwhile, Sylvie, Alex and Edie check out Crystal, who turns out to be even worse than they expected: a smart, drop-dead gorgeous and thoroughly stacked young woman without any signs of a conscience.

Mary helplessly turns to her shrewd mother, who’s come by her wisdom the hard way. When she advises Mary to do nothing at all, Mary discovers her mother developed that idea when her own husband—Mary’s father—had an affair of his own. Mary wants to cling to her friends for help, but Sylvie’s ongoing troubles at work lead to a major mishap. She wants to lure well-known writer Bailey Smith (Carrie Fisher) to Cachet, but Bailey wants something in return—can Sylvie confirm this interesting gossip Bailey’s heard about the Haines couple? Unfortunately, Sylvie, her back against the wall, does just that.

Now without her husband or her best friend, Mary is cast to the wind—and to a health camp, where she encounters vivid, colorful Leah “The Countess” Miller (Bette Midler), a much-married Hollywood agent, who wisely urges Mary to first find out who she herself is, and then maybe she’ll know what to do about her marriage—beyond filing for divorce, which she’s already done. Mary begins to reexamine her priorities.

The decision not to show a single man (one male does appear, very late in the film) in the movie leads to a little awkwardness in the several Manhattan street scenes. You can be distracted from the movie by trying to spot even one man among the brightly-clad hordes. (I couldn’t.) Your attention should be focused on the movie, not on how strongly they enforced their no-males rule.

Having Alex be a lesbian feels more like a concession to today’s trends than a natural outgrowth of the material, but on the other hand, Pinkett Smith is good in the role, and her gayness is never emphasized, never made the focus of a scene, even though the four friends go to a lesbian restaurant. There are nice touches throughout; Marie and Sylvie have been friends so long that they sometimes finish sentences together, or laugh in unison. This isn’t forced or artificial, it feels completely natural, and just what two such long-time friends would do. There’s also a good scene late in the movie: Mary has cut off all contact with Sylvie, who keeps trying to call her, even dropping by (fruitlessly) for a visit. She does spot young Molly playing hooky, and they have a warm, believable conversation—after all, Sylvie’s almost as much a part of Molly’s life as her mother is. And this does help to begin to heal the rift between Sylvie and Mary, and even the growing rift between Molly and her mother.

There are a couple of slightly self-conscious nods to the well-known original movie. During a talk with her mother, Mary’s surprised, exclaiming “What do you think this is, some kind of a 1930s movie?” And in a late-in-the-story scene with Crystal and Molly, Mendes is up to her shoulders in a bubble bath with her hair tied up in a bandanna—looking very much like Joan Crawford, who had the role in the 1939 film. But the scene has its own reason for being; this little wink is just for fun.

Since this isn’t a satire, the dialogue isn’t as brittle and sharp as in the old movie; Sylvie and Mary being friends immediately reduces a large supply of that kind of repartee. But Diane English has also tried to make this a 21st Century movie, not a 1939 movie made today. The ads for the original “The Women” declared “It’s all about the men!”, and it largely was. The most important relationships in these women’s lives were those with their (never seen) men, not with each other. In shifting the focus from Mary and her philandering husband to Mary and her beloved but hesitantly treacherous best friend Sylvie, the effort to modernize (and de-man-ize) the film works—and doesn’t work. At the point Sylvie reveals all to Bailey, we’re caught up so much in Mary’s problems that this additional difficulty seems relatively trivial. The split with Mary doesn’t have a discernible effect on Sylvie, who is having other problems herself. We know they’ll make up; we just sit and wait for it to happen. There’s a show of Mary’s fashions near the end; the outfits are all black, white or red, or a combination; to these non-fashionista eyes, they looked pretty good.

Meg Ryan hasn’t had the lead in a major film for a while, but she’s up to the task here, even if for the first 2/3 of the movie her long blonde curls make her look like Goldie Hawn after having been struck by lightning. Later, she improves her looks by wearing her hair straight. Bening looks her age, and looks terrific throughout. We never quite get as much of a sense of Sylvie and Mary being such close friends as the movie clearly intends; the production notes claim it’s a heterosexual love story about these two women, but the movie doesn’t play that way.

Ryan is fine throughout; it’s a familiar character, but she doesn’t exhibit the nearly poor-little-waif traits that Norma Shearer displayed in the original. We’re sorry for Ryan’s Mary, but we never pity her—a better reaction. Messing is too sitcom-like much of the time, but her character is unimaginatively conceived to begin with. She does have a funny giving-birth scene at the climax; I think she wins the movie world record for one sustained scream.

Who’s going to see “The Women”? I assume the distributors hope that the unexpectedly large crowd that flocked to the movie version of “Sex and the City” earlier this year will turn out for this one, too. But it’s not imitative of that film—it was in production when “Sex in the City” was released, and began planning ten years ago (when Julia Roberts was to be one of the stars). It is also aimed at an older female audience than was “Sex in the City”—this could almost be a sequel to that series and film. Are there enough moviegoers in that group for this one to turn a profit? It’s possible—it wasn’t an expensive movie. But I suspect this is one of those movies that will be discovered on cable and video later on. First it has to go through the inevitable critical flak it’s going to receive for being a remake that isn’t as good as the original. Well, few remakes are—the point is rarely to top the first movie, but to make a similar film that’s worth seeing. As far as I am concerned, the makers of the new “The Women” have done just that.

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