September 10, 2008 / 3:31 AM / 10 years ago

"Women" remake a wipeout

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - This summer, two mediocre female-centered movies — “Sex and the City” and “Mamma Mia!” — drew huge crowds because they appealed to an underserved audience.

(L-R) Actresses Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cloris Leachman, Meg Ryan and Eva Mendes, stars of the film "The Women", pose together at the film's premiere in Los Angeles September 4, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Will ladies of a certain age also flock to see a pallid remake of “The Women,” which opens Friday via Picturehouse? If they do, it will be further proof that women are so eager to see their concerns depicted onscreen that they will tolerate very clunky filmmaking.

Clare Boothe Luce’s play was a hit on Broadway in 1936, and audiences loved the bitchy 1939 movie version directed by George Cukor and starring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford. This time, Diane English’s script and direction let the actresses down. (The “Murphy Brown” creator produced with Mick Jagger and his production partner, Victoria Pearman.)

English’s update keeps the basic story — contented wife and mother Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) is shattered when she learns her husband is having an affair with shopgirl Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes) — as well as the all-female cast; there isn’t a single man on camera.

A few of the best lines from the play and old movie are retained along with the name of Crystal’s favorite nail polish, Jungle Red. But English tones down the catfights in order to celebrate sisterhood. The changes particularly hurt the character of Sylvie Fowler, played by Russell in the original and Annette Bening here. The gossipy, high-powered Sylvie has become less devious and more of a true-blue friend. This might please feminists, but it undermines the drama.

The film repeatedly sacrifices dramatic punch for political correctness. Bette Midler has a delicious cameo as a much-divorced Hollywood agent known as the Countess, but her role is badly truncated. In the original, the countess helped Mary take revenge against Crystal, but that final payoff is missing from the new “Women,” which sags when it should snap.

There’s another major problem. It’s impossible to understand how the four main characters — Ryan, Bening, Debra Messing (as a housewife with a brood of kids) and Jada Pinkett Smith (as a haughty lesbian columnist) — ever became friends. They all seem to come from different worlds. Mary and Sylvie are supposed to be college pals, but Ryan looks a decade younger than Bening.

The actresses all have moments when they show what they can do. Ryan is engaging, and Bening does get a chance to deliver a few zingers. Messing is wasted until the final childbirth scene, when she reveals her flair for physical comedy. Candice Bergen, who played Murphy Brown for English, also contributes a stylish cameo. (Trivia buffs might remember that Bergen and Ryan played mother and daughter once before — in Ryan’s first movie, “Rich and Famous.”) As Mary’s crusty housekeeper, Cloris Leachman steals every scene she’s in. Yet they are all poorly served by the flat pacing. These women are ready for action, but the fur never flies.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

Annette Bening, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Debra Messing in a scene from "The Women". REUTERS/Picturehouse/Handout

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