"What do you think this is?" cries a lady who lunches in Diane English's remake of George Cukor's The Women. "Some kind of '30s movie?"
Even without the 14-year struggle to get the Murphy Brown writer's pet project past studio doubters, it would be a tall order to remake George Cukor's 1939 hit, let alone try to corral its proudly reactionary gender politics for 21st-century feminism (or what's left of it if Sarah Palin has her way). For one thing, the original movie was made during a period when Hollywood eagerly cranked out women's movies by the dozen, and raked in the profits accordingly. For another, The Women — a product of the creative tension between Cukor, who in his très gay way loved all women provided they came excitable and well dressed, and his source material, Clare Boothe Luce's viciously clever 1936 stage satire of Manhattan society dames — was pretty out there for a mainstream movie. Luce's play wasn't just an exhortation to the woman wronged by infidelity to stand by her man and manipulate him back into the nest, but also a furiously conservative attack on the modern woman — a play whose respectably married central character, Mary (played by Norma Shearer), entered with a mannish stride, smoking a pipe. It's only adultery that softens her contours, brings a wistful glisten to her eye at every mention of her husband the heel, and surrounds her with gushy girlfriend gossips who stand ready to rat her out as necessary.
Luce may have been a creep, but she was a fun creep, full of piss and vinegar as she took deadly aim at the useless lives of flighty females with more money than sense. The Women knew what it was, and in Cukor's smooth hands, carried itself with pride and unspeakably fabulous threads. Who knows what English's pudding of a remake thinks it is? Trailing negative buzz and a revolving door of A-list talent since its inception in 1994, The Women isn't so much incompetent — though it has all the visual sumptuousness of a suburban rummage sale — as it is hopelessly tame and muddled. It certainly doesn't help that the movie's lead is completely lacking in the mature glamour that so entranced women filmgoers bracing for a world war, and has had so much plastic correction that her features — all but the ingénue eyes — are immobilized (and this in a movie that sucks whatever laughs it can muster from the Botox-and-surgery subculture). Could that be Meg Ryan peering out from Goldie Hawn's face? Since I have yet to encounter a Ryan comedy in which she fails to flap her hands while pulling on or peeling off woolly socks several fetching sizes too large for her dainty feet, it must be she.
Ryan is all wrong as a contented Connecticut supermom with a half-baked career who is shaken to her core by the news that her husband is having an affair with a Saks "shpritzer girl" (Eva Mendes). Mendes certainly looks the siren part in a black bustier getup from which only the whip is missing, but that's as close as this warmly sensuous young actress gets to the spitting venom that made Joan Crawford so wickedly funny in the original. Indeed, what makes this version so flaccid is the absence of a bona fide double-talking vixen in the entire coven — and that includes Jada Pinkett Smith, trying way too hard for lesbian hardbody. As for the chief gossip herself, happily single magazine editor Sylvia Fowler: I've always pictured Susan Sarandon in the Rosalind Russell part, if only because she seems to have sprung fully formed from the same genetic material as the great (and similarly pop-eyed) actress. Still, Annette Bening is a perfectly fine choice who gets the best line when she sweeps in and says, "This is my face; deal with it," before turning into a dithery ghost of Meryl Streep's caffeinated werewolf in The Devil Wears Prada. Other than, interestingly, the truly older women (Candice Bergen as Mary's mom, Cloris Leachman as a straight-shooting housekeeper, and a woefully underused Bette Midler as a much-married playgirl), that's about as badass as anyone gets among this relentlessly well-intentioned lot.
As it happens, Cukor's screenwriters, Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, also softened the bitter edge of Luce's dialogue enough to allow audiences to identify with Mary's desire to recover her prodigal husband. But they never lost sight of the fact that the play was satire. Turning The Women into a girlfriend-solidarity movie (English has called her remake "a love story between two women") would have made Luce barf, but true to her roots in television, that's what the director has done. It proves fatal.
Before you know it, The Women has shrunk to fit the sewing form of a movie of the week whose heroine is briefly floored by adversity before rising from the ashes, coiffed à la L'Oreal 'cause she's worth it, and fully employed with a little help from her BFFs. Hear her roar — or not. Cripplingly sensitive to its market potential, The Women hedges its bets, leaves its options open, and covers every possible female demographic base before wilting into a gooey maternity-ward finale.
Off the top of my head, I can think of several gifted interpreters of women on the verge — Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing), Tamara Jenkins (The Savages), or even Pedro Almodóvar himself — who could have planed away Luce's viciousness without losing her satirical edge. Understandably, English — who put in the hard labor to bring her baby to term — wanted to direct. But she's the wrong person for the job, and, willy-nilly, she has reduced one of the wittiest women's comedies ever made to just another ho-hum chick flick. Lord knows, this summer saw enough of those.