Appellate Judge Tom Becker knows there are some things you can't cover up with lipstick and powder.
It's all about…
What is it with Bette Midler appearing in hoary remakes of proto-feminist films? First, she shamed herself in the intolerable 2004 version of The Stepford Wives, which made the '70's satire/social comment/sci-fi film seem like it was penned by Simone de Beauvoir. Now Midler pops up in this remake/retread/rethinking/reworking of The Women, which was a successful play by Clare Boothe Luce made into a successful 1939 film by George Cukor.
I was never a big fan of The Women of 1939. A brittle comedy about a young socialite who discovers her husband is cheating with "a shopgirl," I found it kind of silly and overplayed, and I couldn't relate even beyond the chromosomal differences. Having seen this version, however, I appreciate the original a lot more.
This new incarnation of The Women is less an update or a modernization than it is a kind of science fiction grafting experiment. Had Clare Booth Luce—or Anita Loos, who adapted the screenplay—set the whole thing in the future while using their contemporary sensibilities, it probably would have looked something like this film. You could subtitle it, "Things to Come and Chatter Idiotically with a Pulled Face."
The story, as I understand it: Sweet 'n' perky Mary Haines (Meg Ryan, Proof of Life) finds her life falling apart when her wealthy-beyond-belief husband takes up with trashy perfume salesgirl Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes, Hitch).
When she kicks the cad out of their Connecticut manse, Mary has neither sex nor the city, but she does have her Representative-of-Diverse-but-Privileged-Women friends: wise-cracking workaholic magazine editor Sylvie Fowler (Annette Bening, Being Julia); author and "fierce" (please note the quotation marks for added emphasis) lesbian Alex Fisher (Jada Pinkett Smith, Ali); and blissfully domesticated and perpetually pregnant Edie Cohen (Debra Messing, Along Came Polly). Together, they trade barbs, share tears, pledge undying love to sisterhood, and develop superpowers that if used for evil will turn Earth into a wasteland and set civilization back 500 years. Just kidding on that last one. The only superpowers this crew has is the ability to make Beaches look like it belongs on a double bill with The Road Warrior.
Speaking of Beaches—and, for that matter, The Road Warrior—Bette Midler, as promised, does turn up for an extended cameo as an agent nicknamed "The Countess." You see, in the original, Mary Haines went off to a ranch, where she commiserated with other women who were getting divorced, including a much-married countess. Twenty-first Century Mary goes off to Empowerment Camp, which looks like a summer camp as run by Andrea Dworkin. Here she meets the "irrepressible" (again, note the quotation marks) Countess character, who cracks so wise that all the action (what there is of it) freezes so that Midler can do her shtick while everyone on screen chuckles appreciatively.
Why include a redux of the whole Divorce Ranch business if you're only going to muck it up? Well, thank Writer/director Diane English's suicidally slavish devotion to the source material for that. Entire scenes seem to have been brought over intact; it's as though any changes in social and gender dynamics of the last 70 years never took place. Wealthy women still say things, "Well, I never!" Mary learns of her husband's affair from a gossipy manicurist, even though he's famous enough that their break-up warrants a Page six article in the Post. Her friends are shocked that he's lowered himself to cheating with "a salesgirl." (He's a Wall Streeter; were this film made later in 2008, the "salesgirl" would be supporting him.) English has created an alternate universe where Depression-era mores meet Bush-era fashions.
One of the gimmicks of the original was that every creature seen on screen was female, including animals; even the artwork represented women. This worked alright in 1939 because society was more gender-segregated and because many scenes were set in places where you just wouldn't find men—the Divorce Ranch or a ladies' room lounge, for instance.
The new version keeps the gimmick, but with decidedly different results. Since the whole thing is opened up and less stagebound, our ladies stroll through restaurants, stores, and even New York City streets amongst all female extras. The absence of men is less clever than it's glaring and creepy. It's like a death ray shot down from outer space and annihilated everything with xy-chromosomes. A scene set in a lesbian restaurant—because, you know, in New York City, men never set foot in "lesbian restaurants," and how modern of the gals to be there—just reeks of desperation.
Part of the problem is that The Women just hasn't aged well. Even as a period piece, it's tough to pull off. A few years ago, the play was revived on Broadway to terrible reviews, despite a cast that included Cynthia Nixon, Kristen Johnston, Rue McClanahan, Amy Ryan, and Jennifer Tilly. Why English didn't just dispense with the whole remake business and just make her own empty and shallow chick flick is beyond me.
The increasingly unrecognizable mid-40s Meg Ryan plays the mid-30s Mary Haines, a role originally played by mid-30s Norma Shearer. Ryan offers a mechanical, by-the-numbers performance that's neither dreadful nor especially memorable. Annette Bening takes on the Rosalind Russell role of Mary's scheming and duplicitous best friend, though here she's much less scheming and duplicitous. Bening's the best thing in this movie. As she did in the overrated and heinous American Beauty, she takes a thankless, butt-of-the-joke role and fleshes out a humane and sympathetic character.
In the original film, Crystal Allen—the "other woman"—was famously and definitively portrayed by Joan Crawford. Here, we get a caricature courtesy of Eva Mendes. Even English must have seen the folly here, because this pivotal role is drastically reduced, with Crawford's famous exit line about kennels now a throwaway utterance at the beginning of the film.
The disc is an old-style flipper, widescreen on one side, full frame on the other. For a new release, the picture is not especially strong; this looks a lot like a TV movie, flat and soft in spots. The audio is perfectly acceptable for a film that's mainly dialogue, with a few unmemorable music montages tossed in for no particular reason. My copy also included a certificate with a Web site and authorization code for downloading a digital copy. Since this is not heralded on the package, I don't know if it will be a standard feature on every disc sold.
For extras, we get a couple of useless deleted scenes and a pair of featurettes. "The Women: The Legacy" features Diane English and various cast members talking about the film in relation to its predecessor and includes clips comparing the two. 1939 has never looked so good.
The other featurette is either ironic or clueless, I'm not sure which. "The Women Behind The Women" is built around Dove soap's Campaign for Real Beauty. Obviously geared toward 'tweens, this one features a 16-year-old journalist named "Cammy." Cammy hangs around the set and learns all about this historic production and feels empowered. Diane English brags that besides the all-female cast, she went out of her way to employ as many women as she could behind the scenes. I think that amounts to gender discrimination and is a federal offense, but no matter.
The only reason for all this tween-baiting that I can see is one of the myriad disposable subplots. This one involves Ryan's tweenage daughter grappling with body image issues. Of course, she is empowered by magazine editor Sylvie ("Be yourself!") and then by her mother, who reassures her that she's beautiful as she is before whisking her off to a fashion show where she gets to watch hollow cheeked models parade around in her mom's size zero couture line and share hugs with her newly face-lifted grandma (Candice Bergen). The irony is that none of this is played for irony.
Naturally, the daughter character is a child as envisioned by someone who spends no time with actual children. She's the kind of aphorism- and sass-spouting humanoid that Hollywood wants us to believe is an honest reflection of those who are under 16, over 62, and/or domestic workers. This single stereotyped character in no way makes the PG-13 rated The Women a "tween movie." I can't imagine it appealing to anyone under 40. If they're trying to market this to young girls, what lesson are they hoping to impart? Empowerment is as close as the nearest push-up bra and hooker heels?
And, given the sheer volume of Botox, collagen, silicone, and surgical retouchings on display here, whose brilliant idea was it to showcase a featurette on "real beauty?" When Cammy asks Meg Ryan about real beauty, the actress laughably mutters something about being authentic—this from someone who was apparently so uncomfortable with her own "real beauty" that she paid a surgeon to disfigure her.
Sorry, but this far exceeds my normally high cynicism threshold. This featurette propels this disc from just plain bad to near contemptible.
Shrill and simplistic, The Women makes Sex and the City look like a courageous and compelling treatise on gender politics.
Guilty. Ship these ladies off to Wentworth.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• "The Women: The Legacy"
Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.