In "The Women," suburban wife and mother Mary Haines comes to see the error of trying to be all things to all people. It's too bad that the film she's in didn't learn the same lesson and instead tries way too hard be everything for all women.
"The Women" is an updating of the celebrated 1939 George Cukor-directed film about adultery, divorce and friendship that starred Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine. Once you know the remake's history, you can at least understand why writer-director Diane English strove to include a virtual laundry list of causes and crises in women's lives in her new version.
For one thing, the original "Women's" notion of an all-female cast was something Hollywood has pretty much not tried again since that picture to this. For another, it took English, best known as the creator of TV's "Murphy Brown," 14 years to get this project made. Given those statistics, it's no wonder that English decided to use the film as a kind of bulletin board to post everything she ever wanted to say about the place of women in the world.
While the original film, written by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin from a play by Clare Boothe Luce, saw itself as a catty entertainment about New York society women coping with the infidelity of the husband of one of their friends, English has something grander and more complex in mind.
Graced with a big-name cast, including Meg Ryan as wife Mary, Annette Bening, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith as her best friends, and Eva Mendes as the home wrecker, this version sees itself as both a farce and a manifesto, a glorification of female friendship and a celebration of women's need for self-realization.
And when it comes to issues, "The Women" plays like a year's worth of stories from a glossy magazine.
In no particular order, the film deals with childbirth, face-lifts, sexual techniques, career women who neglect their children, teenage girls with self-image problems, men who don't believe in women, men who have trouble with successful women (not the same thing), the betrayal of female friendships, the perils of careers in a man's world and, quite possibly, more.
All that would be a handful to pull off for the most experienced filmmaker, but English has never directed before, and it shows. The visual choices she makes in "The Women" are invariably static, and except for whatever energy the performers can manage, the storytelling has a dispiriting flatness to it.
"The Women's" story starts roughly the same way the 1939 film does, with the discovery that Mary's never-seen husband, Steven, is having an affair with Crystal Allen (an intentionally provocative Mendes), the woman behind the perfume counter -- "the spritzer girl" to be exact -- at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Mary's best friends, including magazine editor Sylvie Fowler (Bening), gay writer Alex Fisher (Pinkett Smith) and supermom Edie Cohen (Messing), first try to decide whether to tell Mary and then what to advise her after she finds out the truth.
After this initial setup, however, "The Women" becomes unfocused as it stumbles over all the points it wants to make. Given English's writing skills, the dialogue doesn't help as much as it should, tending too much toward one-liners that aim for raunchy whenever possible.
Never particularly believable, the story quickly unravels into schematic contrivance and wish-fulfillment fantasy. The actresses all try hard to bring a project they clearly believe in to life, but that is rarely enough.
It's hard to say what's sadder, that "The Women's" intended audience had to wait 14 years for a film like this or that that long wait has been almost for naught.
"The Women." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sex-related material, language, some drug use and brief smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. In general release.