Diane English’s “The Women” – a review

The WomenSo, after watching the original George Cukor version of The Women, I decided I should rewatch the 2008 Diane English version. Originally, I saw it in the movie theaters, and well…I remember being rather underwhelmed, especially when I thought about all the talent involved, as well as, the time it took to get that movie finally made. There was a great article in Entertainment Weekly a few years back, about English’s journey in getting this remake made – she went through a laundry list of movie stars – Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan, Queen Latifah, Whitney Houston, Candice Bergen, Maris Tomei, blah, blah, blah, and still the movie sort of languished.

Finally, English was able to get her sh*t together and assembled a really starry cast: Ryan, Annette Bening, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bette Midler, Bergen, and Cloris Leachman. Pretty impressive names, but unfortunately, the movie’s pretty much a dud. A shame because these ladies make up a talented bunch, and English is a talented writer. So what went wrong?

Well, for starters, English had the daffy notion that The Women needed to be remade. George Cukor’s original was a stylized fantasy – a Twilight Zone-like setting where there are no men – even the dogs are female. Also, the original – adapted from Clare Luce’s stage play – revels in its outdated sexual mores – in English’s vision, girl power and facile feminism takes center stage: while it’s admirable, it’s not very funny.

The plot is faithful in its bones to the original: socialite Mary Haines (Ryan) is the center of her social circle, but is the butt of nasty gossip because her husband is cheating on her. Mary’s got a gaggle of girlfriends: a fecundate Edie Cohen (Messing); dour lesbian, Alex (Pinkett Smith a.k.a the Fresh Princess); and a revamped Sylvia Fowler (Bening), who has been defanged from Rosalind Russell’s hilariously cruel cutup from the original, to a more sympathetic cutup – a comic foil who’s really a good person. Mary’s husband’s running to Crystal Allen, here played by Eva Mendes – who’s so va-va-voom, she looks like one of those sexy women from the Max Fleisher cartoons (you know the kind, those Jessica Rabbit-types who are always fending off cartoon wolves whose tongues roll down like red carpets).

So English is trying to figure out how to pull The Women into the 21st century. It’s hard. Extract the stinging bitchery and meaness of the 1939 original, and essentially you’ve got a soapy movie that goes nowhere. And that is the problem with English’s The Women – it’s no longer a campy romp, but a strangely earnest tale of female friendship.

With a cast like the one English assembled, one would assume that the combined star power and talent would overcome any of the script’s shortcomings. Unfortunately, English’s sitcommy script often fails these ladies who try their best. Ryan’s a great focus for the film – now, a lot of folks ragged on her plastic surgery (one female critic likened her to a fish – not nice). I think she looks fine, and she does fine in this movie -thankfully, she avoids those patented Meg Ryanisms – you know, the crinkled nose, the boyish, slouchy walk, the fist pump in the air in triumph. Bening tries to have it both ways: she tries to be more likable, but then she’s also trying to recall Russell – and her veering back and forth doesn’t catch. Messing, a star from Will & Grace, is pretty funny – she comes very close to channelling Lucille Ball, and English gifts her with a nifty physical comedy bit during a birth scene. English reunites with Bergen, who plays Mary’s mom, after a decade of working on Murphy Brown, and the two click well together – as if the years never happened – have you ever wondered what Murphy would’ve looked like a decade later? Yeah, neither have I…Oh, and here’s some fun useless trivia, especially unuseful at a gay cocktail party: Bergen played Ryan’s mom before in Rich and Famous, which was Cukor’s final film – funny, huh?

If one is familiar with English’s work, one  would know that she’s a bleeding heart liberal. Unfortunately, her white privilege is showing: the two people of color in this movie are the worst written in the film. Pinkett Smith’s gay in the film which means English gets to check off two boxes on the diversity form (hopefully, she won’t get a crick, trying to pat herself on the back for that one). Mendes, meanwhile, looks like a cartoon, is about as deep as one, too; maybe it’s because English’s just not up to writing for folks of color, or maybe it’s because she knew Mendes was going to be cast (after all, she’s lovely, but Mendes isn’t Meryl Streep).

So how faithful is English’s script to Cukor’s? Well, despite the inherent archaic nature of the story, English does prune some of the ancient aspects of the original. For example, the Reno, Nevada sequence from the old movie is no longer in the story. Also, Mary’s daughter Molly (originally “little Mary”), is a lot more fiery and peppery in this version – she’s a sullen tween, and a major plus for this film.

But English did keep some elements in – the iconic fashion show is recreated after Mary inexplicably becomes a fashion designer, thanks to the sudden influx of money from her mother. Over the synthetic beats of Annie Lennox, Mary’s creations are paraded down the catwalk (though unlike in Cukor’s film, in English’s, we’re not suddenly transported to a world of color from black and white). Also, English, like Cukor, ignores any kind of financial reality – these women live in rarefied circumstances – clothed in the finest of high-priced designs, living in luxe Manhattan apartments and Hamptons mansions. It’s meant to be escapist entertainment.

I’ve been spending a lot of time typing up how mediocre the movie is. But there are some positives – namely most of the cast. It’s always fun to see Love Boat-style casting, and English was able to cram a lot of familiar faces. I was thinking about English while watching this film – outside Murphy Brown, I didn’t know anything else she did. So I looked her up: well, there isn’t a whole lot aside from Murphy Brown. She did something called Ink, that starred a post-Cheers Ted Danson and his wife Mary Steenburgen; she also wrote My Sister Sam, a middling 80s sitcom, that unfortunately is known because of the murder of its star, Rebecca Shaeffer; also, she penned a forgotten Susan Dey sitcom called Love and War. A quick perusal confirms what’s evident from The Women: English isn’t the most versatile writer – she’s strictly sitcom, and is over her head when trying to craft a two-hour movie.

So, is English’s The Women a total time-waster? Not total, but you’d be better off, tossing this one aside and popping in the Cukor version.

Click here to buy The Women on amazon.com.

 

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Filed under Celeb, Comedy, DVD, movie, movie review, Sitcom

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