The Women



Opens: Friday, Sept. 12 (Picturehouse)

This summer, two mediocre female-centered movies -- "Sex and the City" and "Mamma Mia!" -- drew huge crowds because they appealed to an underserved audience. Will ladies of a certain age also flock to see writer-director Diane English's pallid remake of "The Women"? If they do, it will be further proof that women are so eager to see their concerns depicted onscreen that they will tolerate very clunky filmmaking.

Clare Boothe Luce's play was a hit on Broadway in 1936, and audiences loved the bitchy 1939 movie version directed by George Cukor and starring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford. This time, the script and direction let the actresses down.

English's update keeps the basic story -- contented wife and mother Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) is shattered when she learns her husband is having an affair with shopgirl Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes) -- as well as the all-female cast; there isn't a single man on camera. A few of the best lines from the play and old movie are retained along with the name of Crystal's favorite nail polish, Jungle Red. But English tones down the catfights in order to celebrate sisterhood. The changes particularly hurt the character of Sylvie Fowler, played by Russell in the original and Annette Bening here. The gossipy, high-powered Sylvie has become less devious and more of a true-blue friend. This might please feminists, but it undermines the drama.

The film repeatedly sacrifices dramatic punch for political correctness. Bette Midler has a delicious cameo as a much-divorced Hollywood agent known as the Countess, but her role is badly truncated. In the original, the countess helped Mary take revenge against Crystal, but that final payoff is missing from the new "Women," which sags when it should snap.

There's another major problem. It's impossible to understand how the four main characters -- Ryan, Bening, Debra Messing (as a housewife with a brood of kids) and Jada Pinkett Smith (as a haughty lesbian columnist) -- ever became friends. They all seem to come from different worlds. Mary and Sylvie are supposed to be college pals, but Ryan looks a decade younger than Bening.

The actresses all have moments when they show what they can do. Ryan is engaging, and Bening does get a chance to deliver a few zingers. Messing is wasted until the final childbirth scene, when she reveals her flair for physical comedy. Candice Bergen, who played Murphy Brown for English, contributes a stylish cameo. (Trivia buffs might remember that Bergen and Ryan played mother and daughter once before -- in Ryan's first movie, "Rich and Famous.") As Mary's crusty housekeeper, Cloris Leachman steals every scene she's in. Yet they are all poorly served by the flat pacing. These women are ready for action, but the fur never flies.

Cast: Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Carrie Fisher, Cloris Leachman, Debi Mazar, Bette Midler, Candice Bergen.
Director-screenwriter: Diane English.
Based on the play by Clare Booth Luce and screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin.
Producers: Victoria Pearman, Mick Jagger, Bill Johnson, Diane English.
Executive producers: Jim Seibel, Joel Shukovsky, Bobby Sheng, James W. Skotchdopole, Bob Berney, Carolyn Blackwood.
Director of photography: Anastas Michos.
Production designer: Jane Musky.
Music: Mark Isham.
Costume designer: John Dunn.
Editor: Tia Nolan.
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.