Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Women

Posted By on Wed, Sep 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

In an era when adult females routinely refer to each other as girls while flaunting their status, what use do we have for a remake of 1939's The Women? Despite the careful updating from writer-director Diane English (Murphy Brown), there's something quaintly old-fashioned about this film, as if the free-willed daughters of ladies who lunch have put on their mothers' constricting wardrobes, but without the necessary foundation garments.

English keeps the cast all female and employs the original's central storyline, wherein beloved society matron Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) discovers that her high-powered husband is having a fling with the sultry Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes), who works at a department store perfume counter. Mary's tight circle of friends rallies around her, with the queen bee of their well-heeled hive, the ferociously opinionated Sylvie Fowler (Annette Bening), taking charge.

The modernization of The Women means that Crystal is no longer the only working girl; with the exception of full-time baby-making machine Edie Cohen (Debra Messing), these women pursue careers the way their forbearers pursued men. Sylvie has just been elevated to editor-in-chief of an influential fashion magazine, one she hopes to recast as the thinking woman's monthly. Mary dutifully designs clothes she would never wear for her errant father's fashion house.

When it comes to squeezing these new women into the restrictive mind-set of their 1930s grandmothers, English is less successful. Murphy Brown herself, Candice Bergen, appears as Mary's mother, who doles out cocktails along with the kind of relationship advice that makes The Rules look progressive. Jada Pinkett Smith has a forceful screen presence, but here she's awkwardly cast as a lesbian author whose sole purpose seems to be articulating the kind of rude sexual comments a man would make.

Like Sylvie, English wants to elevate the conversation about women's lives using a mass-media form that has become all about the lowest common denominator. But she doesn't know what to make of the pit bulls with lipstick who take for granted what women of her generation had to fight for and then bully their way to the top by playing to the worst aspects of our natures (like the ambitious editrix who lobbies for "the revenge issue").

Her women may wear the Jungle Red nail polish of their predecessors, but English can't bring herself to stage a bloody catfight. Without its salacious, satirical bite, The Women is a toothless talkfest with too little to say.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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