Philosophically, the very existence of The Women is something that makes me cheer. As its title suggests, it's a movie full of only women — and many of them "women of a certain age," at that. Director and screenwriter Diane English spent years trying to steer her remake of George Cukor's 1939 classic to the screen, and I respect and admire her determination. A powerful remake of The Women could have sent yet another signal that moviegoers want to see women on screen in all their beautiful, imperfect, daffy, lovable, clueless, fantastic glory.
On screen, though, The Women disappoints to an almost depressing degree. It's not an outright disaster; there are good moments from nearly everyone in the gigantic cast. But it's not screwball enough to honor its '30s movie heritage, not clever enough to make for a fun night out at the theater. And its own message on women is utterly conflicted, threatening to undermine the potential positive impact of bringing an all-female movie to the big screen.
Meg Ryan stars as Mary Haines, whose life comes complete with adorable daughter, fabulous luncheons, and blooming garden she planted herself. If there are cracks in that shiny veneer, she'd hardly notice; as a friend, Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith), points out, she's too busy filling them in. So it knocks her flat when she finds out — thanks to her gossipy manicurist (Debi Mazar) — that her husband is having an affair with the Saks perfume "spritzer girl" (Eva Mendes). That betrayal would be bad enough, but before long, there's another one, courtesy of her best friend Sylvie (Annette Bening), who sells out Mary to save her own floundering career. The Women does fine with that broad sketch of a plot. It's in the details that the movie loses its footing, so read more.
Some of the movie's issues lie in the direction, which isn't confident enough to pull off some of the more screwball elements. English also doesn't seem to know how to use Bette Midler, who has a brief cameo that is delightful to watch but doesn't contribute much to the story, and Debra Messing and Smith are hardly in the movie. The whole look of the film is flat — understandable given its relatively small budget, but far from engaging for a viewer.
What The Women gets right is Mary's devastation at Sylvie's betrayal; losing her husband wouldn't have been so bad if the whole mess hadn't taken her friend along with it. The few scenes with the friends together are a treat, especially when they're plotting their confrontation of (and revenge against) the spritzer girl. Mendes basically just has to act hot and stupid, and she does that well. And Candice Bergen is amusing as Mary's mother, who dispenses advice that seems to be from another era.
Or is it? The Women seems confused about its own thoughts on women's roles. And while I can live with the ultimate outcome of Mary's journey to find herself (though I thought it was far too easy and predictable), what I can't condone is the movie's treatment of Mary's daughter Molly, who is basically a living representation of Why Women Hate Themselves. In her first scene, she tells Mary she's on a diet because she's fat; Mary laughs it off . Over the course of the movie, she starts smoking to keep from eating, burns tampons because she hates being a girl, and laments that she doesn't understand why magazine editors like Sylvie send such mixed signals to women. Sylvie's ultimate response when confronted with all of Molly's baggage? "I'm a hypocrite. Life is complicated."
Sadly, that empty, cop-out response is far too apt a metaphor for The Women as a whole.
Photos courtesy of Picturehouse