Women, The (2008): Diane English’s Poor, Unnecessary Remake of Cukor’s 1939 Classic

As written and directed by Diane English, “The Women,” a remake of the classic George Cukor comedy, is a disappointing film that lacks the nasty humor and satirical bite of the 1939 original. The new version subscribes to another genre: In lieu of a campy comedy, the tale unfolds as a flat chick flick melodrama about female camaraderie and empowerment.

To be fair, English faced an impossible task in trying to update the MGM classic based on Clare Booth Luce’s play. The comedy that was outdated even in the late 1930s, but it benefited from the star power of two of MGM’s queens, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, though arguably the best performance was given by Rosalind Russell, in a comeback role that catapulted her to the major league.

While some of English’s casting choices are sound, others are not. In the Norma Shearer role, Meg Ryan is OK, but no more. Eva Mendes is vastly miscast in the Joan Crawford role, and despite valiant efforts, Annette Bening as Sylvie is rather flat, stuck with the most literal and literate role.

English, the award-winning writer-producer of the landmark TV sitcom “Murphy Brown,” starring Candice Berge, who is in this picture, has been trying to remake the picture for 14 years, and several high-powered actresses, such as Julia Roberts, have been attached to it at one time or another.

It is with great sadness that I report that “The Women” is the last theatrical release of Picturehouse (a New Line/HBO division) under the entrepreneurial leadership of Bob Berney, who has done marvels with this (and former) affiliations. It would have been nicer if the specialty unit ended with a bang, but it is not. The best marketing tool is the high-profile, multi-racial cast. With some savvy positioning and advertising and sheer luck, “The Women” can generate some decent numbers at the box-office, though far from the two mega chick flicks of the summer, “Sex and the City” and “Mamma Mia!” (neither a good movie, by the way).

For those who need a reminder, Cukor’s movie, based on Clare Booth Luce’s 1936 hit play, told the story of a wronged society wife and her circle of friends, all played by major of stars, who also included Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Lucile Watson, and Mary Boland.

Like the original, there is no man in sight in the new one, a gimmick that worked back then and also works now. To be sure, the movie’s old-fashioned ideas and types screamed for update; after all, seven decades have passed since the play and film, during which even the pessimist observers will have to admit that women’s positions in society have changed.

The play and film were very much products of their era, when women were expected to pursue marriage and domesticity at all costs. More specifically, the original film focused on a particular milieu, Manhattan high-society, which Luce first skewered as a writer-editor for anity Fair. Luce, who was married to the powerful Time magazine publisher Henry Luce, had a field day with Gothams leisure set with “The Women,” her second play. The films screenplay, by Anita Loos (who wrote the novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) and Jane Murfin, maintained Luce’s acerbic perspective, and was replete with sharp dialogue and witty one-liners. Both works were poison pen letters to shallow society women,who would stab each other in the back over a man, and were catty, fast-paced comedies with real rapier wit.

But, alas, English has consciously chosen to celebrate women, feminine intuition, and female power in a movie that’s borderline message-driven. Her strategy is to keep the underlying story about Mary Haines (Ryan), a happily married woman who discovers her husband Steven is having an affair with a salesgirl Crystal Allen (Mendes).

English has also broadened the range of women who comprise Mary’s circle of friends and family, creating characters of different backgrounds, generations, professions, marital status and even sexual orientation–all to little effect.

A recognizable contemporary woman, Mary is bright and accomplished but also overextended, with a part-time career in fashion, a prominent role in charity committees, and a strong desire (and need) to please everyone. As played by Ryan, she comes across as anaive or not very bright femme, who’s shocked when her own father terminates her job, forcing her to pursue her own independent career.

Early on, often in a split screen, we meet the dramatic persona. Edith Potter, a mother of six who pretends to dislike gossip, has become in this version Edie Cohen (Debra Messing), a nurturing, artistically inclined mother of four.

The original film’s bachelorette, the sardonic plain-Jane writer Nancy Blake is now Alex Fisher (Jada Pinkett Smith), an acclaimed humor essayist and sexy lesbian playgirl, who’s dating a hot, much younger model. It may be a sign of the times, but no one cares or blinks an eye about her lifestyle.

Unfortunately, the re-invention of Sylvia Fowler, Mary Haines’ best friend, is unsuccessful. As portrayed by Rosalind Russell, Sylvia was a catty society wife with a penchant for spreading malicious gossip. But English has transformed Sylvia into Sylvie Fowler, a single top magazine editor and Mary’s devoted friend since college. In the original, Sylvia stirs the pot of Mary’s troubles. In English’s telling, Sylvie’s betrayal of Mary’s privacy is part of a Faustian bargain she’s forced to make (to keep her job in a competitive market), only to regret it painfully and profoundly, when she realizes the effects.

In other words, English has turned what was essentially a critical comedy into a banal love story between straight women. The original is all about whether Mary Haines will reconcile with her husband, who betrayed her trust. In this version, the issues are whether or not Mary will reconcile with her best friend Sylvie, who betrayed her trust, and whether or not she will be accepted by her daughter as the good, responsible mother she’s always wanted to be.

But before that, we have to sit through a series of conflicts and separations, including one, in which Sylvie bonds with Mary’s daughter, which changes the focus and meaning of the original works, getting it closer to a remake of a classic Bette Davis melodrama of the 1940s than to a Depression-era screwball comedy.

English’s writing is vastly uneven. Some scenes, such as the monologue of the manicurist that spills the beans about Steven’s affair, are lifted verbatim from the 1939 text, though they are not nearly as funny or biting as in the original. The fashion show, which was in color in the black-and-white 1939 movie, is recreated but without glamour or humor.

On the other hand, English has shrewdly deleted the whole sequence of the divorce ranch in Reno, but has not substituted it with any new or worthy setting. And while there are some punch lines, they mostly fall flat because of the context and style in which they are delivered.

The acting of the ensemble-driven piece is unequal, too, leaving much to be desired. While Meg Ryan acquits herself honorably, Annette Bening, playing the biggest role (thus, again deviating from the original, in which Mary is the central figure) does not; circling 50, both Ryan and Bening may be too old for their parts.

Candice Bergen, as Mary’s realistic, cynical mother, at once a victim of socialization and beneficiary of modern technology (it almost was necessary to include plastic surgery into the saga), delivers the strongest performance, nailing her part in three of four short scenes. Surprisingly, the naturally sexy Eva Mendes is miscast, and thus not credible as a woman who would “steal” Mary’s husband. Debra Messing doesn’t have much to do but carry her children around and be pregnant. (There are too many reaction shots of the kids while observing how the women make fool of themselves, often in public). In a small part, as Mary’s endlessly curious, bossy yet discreet housekeeper, Cloris Leachman shines, fearlessly revealing her age in plain clothes and sans makeup.