"There's a word for you ladies, but it's seldom used in high society outside of a kennel." So, says Joan Crawford about the Manhattan socialites who peer down their noses at her in George Cukor's 1939 cautionary satire The Women. Annette Bening delivers the same quip in the opening scene of this remake by writer-director Diane English. Sadly, it turns out to be an empty gesture. Instead of all the bitching and backbiting that characterised the original story, English goes to the other extreme, delivering a teary-eyed session of female bonding which only serves to demonstrate the folly of watching too much Oprah.
Meg Ryan hogs the screen-time in this supposed ensemble piece playing Mary Haines, a matured version of the girl-next-door she used to play in umpteen rom-coms. Haines is happily married, or so she thinks, to Steven, a wealthy businessman who goes unseen. Alas, Mary's best friend Sylvia (Annette Bening), hears on the grapevine that Steven is cheating on Mary with Crystal Allen, a perfume 'spritzer' at Saks department store. A shapely Eva Mendes is cast in this role but could never hope to fill the stiletto shoes of Joan Crawford, largely because the script treats her with utter contempt.
Cukor's film offers a more rounded portrayal of 'the other woman' and not only in terms of the bust-line; the frustrated dreams of the lowly shop-girl are what bring her into clawing distance of the social elite. But in this version, she is the butt of jokes or worse, just the butt. It is a disappointment and a contradiction for a supposedly modern re-telling which asks us not to judge women at face value. English tries to redress the balance by making Sylvia the editor of a women's magazine who strives to set a better example for the dieting, celeb-obsessed masses. But her mission, like the film, feels disingenuous, amd that's in spite of a heartfelt performance by Bening.
Other self-conscious attempts at being 'contemporary' include the casting of Jada Pinkett-Smith as a lesbian essayist and Debra Messing as a bohemian mother of four. They have nothing to do except gather around Mary and cheer her on when she decides to divorce Steven and design a range of cocktail dresses. It's all so perfunctory, underlined by the lack of a genuine rapport between the women. Even more tiresome is a subplot that finds Mary struggling to cope when her daughter (India Ennenga) goes off the rails and sets fire to her tampons. If there is a feminist statement to be made, this about sums up the complexity of it.
In any case, it's tough to empathise with Mary and Co, not because they're upper-class but because there are too many moments which feel lifted from a second-rate sitcom. Especially early on, daft coincidences are key to the plot, such as Mary and Crystal crossing paths at a lingerie store. That said, there are a few good punch-lines including Mary's reaction when she pulls back the curtain to see Crystal for the first time and sees more of her than she'd hoped to see.
Candice Bergen is the real showstopper though, playing Mary's hard-bitten mother. As an old cohort of English (from TV's 'Murphy Brown') she gets the best one-liners and cracks them like a whip. But even then, she exudes a warmth and sincerity which is otherwise lacking.
In a nutshell: The 1930s original feels more cutting-edge than this re-do.
By Stella Papamichael