Once Grand, 'The Women' Is Now Just Another Chick Flick

Ladies Light
Once grand, The Women is now just another chick flick

Even without the 14-year struggle to get Murphy Brown writer Diane English’s pet project past studio doubters, it would be a tall order to remake George Cukor’s 1939 hit The Women, let alone try to corral its proudly reactionary gender politics for 21st-century feminism (or what’s left of it, if Sarah Palin has her way). For one thing, the original movie was made during a period when Hollywood eagerly cranked out women’s movies by the dozen. For another, The Women—a product of the creative tension between Cukor and his source material, Clare Boothe Luce’s viciously clever 1936 stage satire of Manhattan society dames—was pretty out there for a mainstream movie. Luce’s play wasn’t just an exhortation to the woman wronged by infidelity to stand by her man, but also a furiously conservative attack on the modern woman.

Luce may have been a creep, but she was a fun creep, full of piss and vinegar as she took deadly aim at the useless lives of flighty females with more money than sense. The Women knew what it was, and in Cukor’s smooth hands, it carried itself with pride and unspeakably fabulous threads. Who knows what English’s pudding of a remake thinks it is? Trailing negative buzz and a revolving door of A-list talent since its inception in 1994, The Women isn’t so much incompetent as it is hopelessly tame and muddled. It certainly doesn’t help that the movie’s lead is completely lacking in the mature glamour that so entranced women filmgoers bracing for a world war, and she has had so much plastic correction that her features are immobilized. Could that be Meg Ryan peering out from Goldie Hawn’s face? Since I have yet to encounter a Ryan comedy in which she fails to flap her hands while pulling on or peeling off woolly socks several sizes too large for her dainty feet, it must be she.

Ryan is all wrong as a contented Connecticut supermom with a half-baked career who’s shaken to her core by the news that her husband is having an affair with a Saks “shpritzer girl” (Eva Mendes). Mendes certainly looks the siren part in a black-bustier getup from which only the whip is missing, but that’s as close as this warmly sensuous young actress gets to the spitting venom that made Joan Crawford so wickedly funny in the original. Indeed, what makes this version so flaccid is the absence of a bona-fide double-talking vixen in the entire coven—and that includes Jada Pinkett Smith, trying way too hard for lesbian hardbody. As for the chief gossip herself, happily single magazine editor Sylvia Fowler, Annette Bening is a perfectly fine choice; she gets the best line when she sweeps in and says, “This is my face; deal with it,” before turning into a dithery ghost of Meryl Streep’s caffeinated werewolf in The Devil Wears Prada. That’s about as badass as anyone gets among this relentlessly well-intentioned lot.

Turning The Women into a girlfriend-solidarity movie would have made Luce barf, but true to her roots in television, that’s what the director has done. It proves fatal. Before you know it, The Women has shrunk to fit the sewing form of a movie of the week whose heroine is briefly floored by adversity before rising from the ashes, coiffed à la L’Oreal ’cause she’s worth it and fully employed with a little help from her BFFs. Hear her roar—or not. Cripplingly sensitive to its market potential, The Women hedges its bets, leaves its options open and covers every possible female demographic base before wilting into a gooey maternity-ward finale.

The Women was written and directed by Diane English, based on the movie by George Cukor and the play by Clare Boothe Luce. Opens Fri. Countywide.

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