When Claire Boothe Luce wrote The Women as a play in the 1930s, she was taking vicious aim at a particular subset of do-nothing society women who played at marriage and divorce as a career. The only really shocking thing that can be said about this mild 2008 version of the material is that these rich ladies are now presented as heroines of the kind of materialistic culture reflected by (created by?) the success of Sex and the City. Consequently, the characters are introduced under the opening credits by the type of shoes they wear, which lets us know we are far from George Cukor’s famous 1939 movie of Luce’s play, which began with each star preceded by an animal prototype. Rosalind Russell’s scary, chattering bad seed, Sylvia Fowler, who practically licks her chops as she breaks up a marriage, has been transformed into Annette Bening’s brittle but kind Sylvie Fowler, an unmarried magazine editor who plays Miranda to Meg Ryan’s tousle-haired, irritatingly self-absorbed Carrie. Ryan is still doing her cute-mannered act from years ago, and it’s pretty moldy by now, while Bening is left with an unplayable role. In life, there are sociopathic women like Russell’s Sylvia, but only on television do we see articulate, ever-boosting bores like this film’s Sylvie.
Point by point, writer-director Diane English has rethought the original in a seemingly intelligent way, and she provides three-dimensional roles for Candice Bergen, as Ryan’s mother, and Cloris Leachman, as her housekeeper, in parts that would have been mere token bits in most other films of this sort. But English fails miserably when it comes to redoing Joan Crawford’s shop girl role for Eva Mendes. The dramatic tension in Cukor’s movie came from Crawford’s identification with her working-class character, which is what made her a star in the proletarian ’30s. In imperial 2008, however, Mendes, who has potential as an actress aside from her amazing looks, is treated as The Help, a sexual cartoon. Similarly, Debi Mazar’s manicurist has none of the dumb-broad heart revealed in Dennie Moore’s gossipy original; the young working-class women in this movie are treated with total disdain and contempt.
Cukor complicated the dressing-room confrontation between wife (Norma Shearer) and mistress (Crawford) by stressing the shop girl’s sassy strength and the wife’s tired nobility (the real-life enmity between the two actresses fairly leaps off the screen). Here, that same scene is thrown directly to Ryan’s wife, whose slightly out-of-shape body is deliberately contrasted with Mendes spilling out of her lingerie. When Ryan spews out some verbose clichés and Mendes says that she can’t understand such talk, the film reaches a level of truly clueless offensiveness; Cukor would have made us side with Mendes and exposed Ryan’s blather for what it is: over-privileged white noise.
Bette Midler has only two scenes as a Countess De Lave re-imagined as a tired Hollywood agent smoking a joint; she advises dithering Ryan to get “selfish,” and the movie offers this as wisdom, as practically every chick flick has done in the last 10 or 15 years. There was some talk a few months ago that male critics were harder on the Sex and the City movie than they were on generic action films aimed at men. Such arguments, though, are pitifully moot. The majority of male action movies are mind-numbing and awful, yes, but the new “women’s pictures” are just as bad in their own way, and maybe even worse; since there are so few of them, they can do more damage with their shameless ego massaging, their focus on acquisition, their preaching of monstrous selfishness as the way to happiness.
At one point in this version of The Women, Ryan wonders, sarcastically, “What is this, some 1930s movie?” The joke’s on her, for the original version of The Women, shrill and campy as it can be, is miles ahead of this remake when it comes to issues of class and social maneuvering; Cukor’s movie has got star power by the yard and it’s screamingly funny, whereas the conscientious English can only deliver some small chuckles here and there. There was a little-known ’50s remake of The Women called The Opposite Sex, and it was a real travesty, so this new version is an improvement on that, but not much else.