Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Women: Chick shtick

The Women (2008) • View trailer for The Women
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity, sexual candor and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.18.08
Buy DVD: The Women • Buy Blu-Ray: The Women [Blu-ray]

Sometimes, even with top-quality talent, everything goes wrong.

Bad casting decisions. Inconsistent tone. Inexperienced and tin-eared directorial decisions.
Having just learned that her husband is having a rather public affair, Mary
Haines (Meg Ryan, center) flees with her daughter (India Ennenga, left) to her
mother's (Candice Bergen) "summer cabin," while trying to determine her next
move. Sadly, the one thing Mary won't get is good advice or rock-solid support
from her three best friends, because they're too frequently AWOL in writer/
director Diane English's clumsy modern remake of The Women.

Let's begin with the first mistake: the extremely ill-advised decision to remake a play that first hit the big screen in 1939, when director George Cukor guided Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard — among others — in his snarky film adaptation of Clare Booth Luce's The Women.

Luce's play emerged at a time when women — even rich society women — had far fewer options. This isn't mere historical observation; it's crucial to the nature of Luce's play, because a woman of that era risked everything if she chose to divorce her husband, even if the philandering swine deserved it.

Arguing for calm reflection — insisting that the betrayed wife carefully weigh her options, and give serious consideration to forgiving the cad — might have made more sense on the eve of World War II.

In today's world, however, we cannot for a second imagine why all her friends — and even her mother! — would keep insisting that Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) grant a second chance to the off-camera lout who has stepped out on her with a tarted-up perfume counter babe employed at Saks.

Or why Mary would seriously consider such advice.

It's particularly difficult because we never meet her husband, and therefore have no emotional investment in his point of view. That's the gimmick here, as it was in Cukor's film: The cast is entirely female. Whether at home, at work or striding down New York City sidewalks, these characters never encounter — nor do we ever see — any men.

The word "contrived" leaps to mind, which also pretty well covers writer/director Diane English's script.

Cukor, even though he did operate at a time when the central storyline "read" well, had the good sense to retain Luce's wonderfully nasty tone. Her play is a verbal slugfest, with even the central core friends behaving quite badly at times; all her characters deliver caustic, often barbed comments with the skill of a Jane Austen heroine.

Even today, Cukor's film remains a howl, its rarefied cattiness just as deliciously arch as the rat-a-tat tough guy (and gal) talk in the best 1940s and '50s noir thrillers. Point being, we're not intended to take anything all that seriously; Luce's women are deliberated exaggerated archetypes who take merciless glee while chewing up the scenery ... and each other.

Crawford, as the home-wrecking Crystal Allen, had one of the most sublimely bitchy roles of her entire career. She's replaced here by Eva Mendes: all body, no bite. Mendes tries to talk tough, but she hasn't the chops for it; the only reason Crystal gets anywhere during her one encounter with Mary — a truly ludicrous exchange of dialogue, in a film laden with clumsy speeches — is that Ryan is even more of a flyweight.

And that's the next big problem with this remake. Perhaps aware that the central premise no longer rings true, English has updated and re-shaded the material, with the apparent intention of making a blend of Sex in the City and The Devil Wears Prada. Gone are the tart-tongued wasps of Luce's play (and Cukor's version); now everybody is a huggy-huggy BFF, with nary a frenemy in sight.

The resulting concoction, neither fish nor fowl, is impossible to fathom. Drama? Too stupid. Comedy? Only randomly funny. Romantic fantasy? Hardly, with no men to be found.

English reportedly struggled for 14 years to revive this play as a new movie; she obviously should have recognized that God was trying to tell her something. In the end, she finished it by making this film her directorial debut ... yet another mistake.

English solidified her Hollywood rep by writing many of the best episodes of TV's Murphy Brown, a show she also executive produced for three seasons. One would think that the experience of feeding so many zingers to Candice Bergen would have prepared English well for Luce's play, and I'm as bewildered as the rest of you: Where's that Diane English?

More to the point, writers — no matter how skilled — don't automatically become good directors, and that's blindingly obvious here. English hasn't the faintest idea how to compose a shot to make it look interesting, nor does she understand how to keep more than two or three people occupied in the same scene.

Look behind the people talking at any given moment, and you'll find everybody else just sort of standing around and doing nothing, as if waiting for their next stage directions.

This is particularly true of Mary's two "lesser friends," Edie and Alex, played here by the miscast Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith. Both are little more than afterthoughts in this mess of a movie, with Pinkett Smith particularly ill-used as a mildly strident lesbian who devolves into a slapstick joke when forced to help the eternally pregnant Edie deliver her fourth (fifth? ninth?) child.

Annette Bening does better as Mary's closest friend, Sylvia Fowler, but only because English pays more attention to her. Indeed, the rich ensemble treatment of Cukor's approach has been reduced here to two-plus main characters — Mary, Sylvia and Mary's young teenage daughter, Molly (India Ennenga, one of this film's sparkling rays of sunshine) — and a series of high-profile cameos.

One of the latter comes from Bette Midler, as a random stranger Mary encounters while briefly retreating from life at an upper-crust rehabilitation clinic. Five minutes with Midler, and we see what this film has been lacking; she's the only character who acts and talks with the hilariously self-absorbed, crocodile ferocity that characterized all the women in Cukor's vastly superior version.

The postage-stamp plot kicks off when Sylvia accidentally learns, from a gossipy Saks manicurist, that the store's perfume gal has a new "rich married conquest" who happens to be Mary's husband. While Sylvia dithers about whether to tell her friend, and gets no further than sharing the information with Edie and Alex, Mary finds out herself ... from the same gossipy source.

Mary then spends the rest of the film kvetching about what to do, wallowing in the misery of her situation while largely ignoring her friends — paging Edie and Alex; you are in this picture, right? — and drawing solace from the brusque housekeeper (Cloris Leachman) and sympathetic Danish au pair (Tilly Scott Pedersen) who come with all the other comforts of her palatial estate.

Oh, yes, did I forget to mention? This is another one of those stories where all the characters — all of them but the token Pinkett Smith being perfectly appointed white women — have more money than God. Again, that made more sense back in 1939, particularly since Cukor had the wisdom to turn the characters and their environment into something of an overstated fantasyland.

But English clearly wants her gal pals to exist in our recognizably familiar real world, and that makes the constant financial largess quite vulgar. Despite Bening's considerable acting skill, we never buy into the looming catastrophe in Sylvia's life, where, as editor of a floundering women's magazine, she's forever one issue away from being fired.

Sylvia doesn't feel "real" for a second — nor do any of the other characters here — so why should we worry whether she's about to lose her job?

Ryan's much-heralded return to the big screen is no more than a hiccup; the material isn't suited to her fairly limited skills, and she never turns Mary into more than a melancholy doormat. Her sudden third-act transformation is no more credible than anything else in this movie.

Everybody's clothes and shoes are an ongoing guilty pleasure, and I like all the scenes with young Ennenga, particularly when Molly decides to trust Sylvia as a sort of surrogate mom, while her own mother has a nervous breakdown. Mark Isham's music is spare but quite droll, suggesting delights that rarely materialize on the screen.

I was reminded, ultimately, of 2001's Town and Country, another big-budget misfire that wasted the talents of a similarly high-profile cast: Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Jenna Elfman, Garry Shandling and others. That film's fundamental error was identical: It also attempted to drag outdated material — in its case, a classic 1940s screwball romantic farce — into the 21st century, with predictably disastrous results (not to mention the fact that everybody was much too old for their parts).

The Women should have remained a snapshot of its era: something for the time capsule, to be enjoyed within the context of its creation.

All English has done is taint the memory of Cukor's vastly superior adaptation.

No comments:

Post a Comment