"Murphy Brown" creator Diane English struggled for well over a decade to bring a remake of 1939's The Women to the screen. Various big name actresses (including Julia Roberts) were attached at different periods, but dropped out when the project repeatedly stalled. English finally aligned the planets and saw her vision hit theaters this past spring only to vanish almost immediately. The new version of The Women comes to DVD on Dec. 23, where it will doubtlessly find its audience. Neither the classic that the original was nor the monstrosity many critics made it out to be, this remake is a flawed comedy that nevertheless contains enough good material to make it worth a look.
Meg Ryan plays Mary Haines, a well-to-do wife and mother who lives in an elegant country home complete with a full service staff. Her world is rocked when she discovers that her husband has been cheating on her with Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes), the vixen who works behind the perfume counter at Saks Fifth Avenue. For support, she leans on her friends: Sylvie (Annette Bening) is a superficial fashion magazine maven; Edie (Debra Messing) is a frequently pregnant homemaker; and Edie (Jada Pinkett-Smith) is a lesbian in a less-than-happy relationship with her hot-headed model girlfriend. Together, the ladies encourage Mary to confront Crystal about the infidelity.
In case you're wondering why Mary doesn't confront her husband, the reason is simple. The Women has only women in it. Seriously. There is exactly one male in the film - briefly, at the end - while every other person you see on screen is female. Crowded streets are filled with female pedestrians, and busy restaurants are attended by only female patrons. I've always despised the term "chick flick" because I find it degrading, but The Women really earns the designation. Part of English's vision is to have an all-female cast.
Not that there's anything wrong with it. In fact, that was one of the things I found kind of interesting about the picture. I also responded to the performances which, given the talent on display, are expectedly strong. Meg Ryan is more successful playing slightly against type here than she has been in some of her other recent films. Her Mary is a troubled, confused woman who doesn't quite know how to respond when the unthinkable happens. She's not exactly the perky, happy sprite Ryan is best known for playing, and the actress nicely conveys those feelings of being adrift. The best performance comes from Annette Bening, whose character - a style-conscious, materially-obsessed diva - is less superficial than you'd expect. Bening finds deeper layers to Sylvie, and the film is better for it.
Having cut her teeth on sitcoms, English knows how to craft a zippy one-liner and milk a comic situation. The Women has some real doozies when it comes to the one-liners; more than a few of them made me laugh out loud. Notice, too, how English stages the confrontation between Mary and Crystal. While trying on lingerie in search of something that might help bring her husband's attention back, Mary learns that Crystal is also trying on lingerie in a nearby dressing room. The two women stand there in their underwear, fighting over a man. The wardrobe is not intended for exploitation; it serves to emphasize Mary's insecurity in the face of Crystal's raw sexiness. She is slightly older and still attractive, yet she realizes that her husband is going for younger and more carnal - areas where she simply cannot compete. The threat of Crystal is most evident in this moment.
If English's sitcom history is at times beneficial, it's also her biggest downfall. The Women has a tendency - especially in the second hour - to become a little too sitcom-ish. Rather than feeling like a major motion picture, the back half plays like an extended episode of a television comedy. Deeply serious situations are resolved quickly and conveniently, with little emotional believability. At the same time, the jokes tend to sound more and more like scripted bon mots. The film even ends with one of those "wacky" delivery room scenes, where people are bumping into each other while the mother-to-be sits in bed screaming like a maniac and hurling insults at everyone around her. It's all just a little too phony, a little too familiar, which is a shame since the first half was sharper and more relatable.
The Women is not perfect, and the best way to enjoy it is as a showcase for some of the top female acting talent of the day. The stars are all in fine form, each of them trying to bring their A-game to the project. The movie can't sustain its ideas or find a meaningful ending, but the actresses keep it afloat enough to provide a pleasant-but-unremarkable evening of home viewing. In other words, not a great movie, but one you might want to check out anyway.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Women hits DVD on Dec. 26 with widescreen and fullscreen versions on the same disc.
First among the bonus features is "The Women: The Legacy," a comparison of the original and the remake. English talks at length about her love for the 1939 version, as well as a desire to update it for modern audiences. Most specifically, she altered the tone so that the women are close, supportive friends rather than catty "frenemies." Clips from the original are also featured, allowing you to compare key moments. This 18-minute feature is quite interesting, with English speaking articulately about the writing and casting processes.
"The Women Behind the Women" is part making-of and part commercial. Sponsored by Dove, the segment features a teen journalist visiting the set while the lead actresses discuss the real meaning of beauty. There's not a ton of substance here - is there a definition of "real beauty" that doesn't seem cliché by now? - but you do get some interesting behind-the-scenes footage.
There are also a couple of deleted scenes (described on the box as "delicious"): one features more of Debi Mazur and Ana Gasteyer as Saks employees, while the other has a bit more of the Bette Midler cameo, as well as a confrontation between Mary and Sylvie. A digital copy of The Women is also included on the DVD.
The Women is rated PG-13 for sex-related material, language, some drug use and brief smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.
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