Diane English’s “The Women,” a less catty, more sappy remake of the 1939 George Cukor classic, plays out like a “Sex and the City” episode that got watered-down with excessive life lessons. There is not one male in this cast, so instead of having sex with men, the four leading ladies have numerous heart-to-hearts about men, which really doesn’t compare.
English’s script presents four members of a clique, but only two of them are really important: wholesome middle-aged girl-next-door Mary Haines, played by Meg Ryan, and stubbornly single Sylvia, played by Annette Bening. The two others, the token black girl and token lesbian rolled into one, Alex, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, and baby-obsessed housewife, Edie, played by Debra Messing, aren’t developed much at all, left to crack jokes and play second-fiddle to their friends.
Sylvia works as a maverick magazine editor who takes a stand against the stick-thin models and dieting tips appearing in the publication, but her shallow coworkers only care about sales. She becomes an outcast in the workplace because anyone who reads women’s magazines knows how rarely editors address the highly controversial “love your body the way it is” topic. The astonishing hypocrisy reaches a climax when Mary’s preteen daughter, played by India Ennenga, confesses that she smokes cigarettes in order to be as skinny as the airbrushed models in Sylvia’s magazine. If the filmmakers had cast a child who was actually fat in the role, her insecurities would be a little less obnoxious.
But the real disaster happens in the nail salon, where Sylvia hears from the manicurist that Mary’s husband is having an affair. A few scenes later, Mary goes to the same manicurist, who then destroys her marriage with the same news. Writer-director English spent 14 years trying to get her version of “The Women” made, but contrivances such as the nail salon scenes make you wonder what could have possibly taken so long.
Mary discusses the betrayal with her mother, played by Candice Bergen, who gives away the ending of the movie. Far too many more heart-to-hearts soon follow, complete with cuss words to keep the easily amused (e.g. old people) from falling asleep.
In the rare moments when the characters aren’t discussing their problems, they lazily try to convince us that womanhood isn’t as miserable as their lives suggest. Sylvia clinically sings the praises of shopping malls, but cute clothes are notably absent from this film. And after Mary straightens her hair, a few dumbfounded characters remark on how great she looks, as if they can’t discern what exactly she changed about her appearance.
In a confrontation with her husband’s sexy mistress, played by Eva Mendes, Mary points out that they are both, after all, human beings. But luckily for Mary, the mistress turns out to be too much of a moron to comprehend what she is saying. So much for humanity. These caricatures should have remained where they were likely developed: in a scorned wife’s revenge fantasy scenario.