This isn’t the first time that Clare Boothe Luce’s 1937 play about New York women and the men they divorce has been updated; she revised it herself in the sixties. And the 1939 movie version had already made its own changes, though they were relatively minor. But seventeen years later it was turned into a flabby CinemaScope musical called “The Opposite Sex,” with plenty of misjudged alterations. That picture even abandoned the original’s total elimination of male characters from the scene by relegating them to offstage status. This revamped “Women” from Diane English (one of the creators of “Murphy Brown”) returns to that practice—the only member of the masculine gender to appear onscreen is a newborn baby boy at the close (though he might in fact be played by a girl). But that reversion doesn’t help, because the problem with this movie isn’t whether the men are missing; it’s that the women on hand are such a boring bunch. Oddly enough, it feels far more old-fashioned than the 1939 picture.
What made Luce’s play, and the first movie, such a hoot, of course, was the bitchiness of the broads who populated them. That’s been radically toned done by English. Sure, one of the group is a sharp-tongued magazine editor who at one point puts her professional interests over friendship, but she turns softie when all’s said and done. Another is a tart actress, but in the end she bends over backwards to support her pals, too. And the mother of the wronged wife is one of those cynical old broads so commonplace in fiction today, but ultimately she becomes her daughter’s supporter as well. The result is that the gaggle of girls resembles the giggling crew of “Sex and the City” more than Luce’s original cutthroat creations.
That’s entirely in synch with English’s essentially sitcom approach, which not only seeks to transform the characters into much more likable types but recasts even the segments of the original that her script retains—and there are quite a few, actually (as well as borrowings from the 1939 screenplay)—into something much less sharp, and therefore much less amusing. And the final reel resolves everything in success and sweetness—a none-too-clever stroke of revenge, a professional triumph for the heroine and, worst of all, a birthing scene that Luce would have gagged over. (It’s no accident that “Sex and the City” went the same route.)
Meg Ryan stars as Mary Haines, whose investment banker husband is cheating on her with a sultry perfume-counter saleswoman named Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes). This leads Mary to demand a divorce, causing all sorts of consternation among her best friends—fashion magazine editor Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening), actress Alex Fisher (Jada Pinkett Smith) and housewife Edie Cohen (Debra Messing)—as well as for her daughter (India Ennenga) and mother (Candice Bergen). Others who are drawn into Mary’s troubles, for one reason or another, are the household help, Maggie (Cloris Leachman) and Uta (Tilly Scott Pederson), a gossipy manicurist named Tanya (Debi Mazar), a powerful Vogue columnist (Carrie Fisher) and an off-the-wall talent agent, who seems to be present only because Bette Midler was on hand for a couple of hours to do a flamboyant cameo.
This is actually a strong cast, but they’re constantly undermined by English’s failings as director. Everything is played too broadly (no pun intended) and slowly, as though the scenes were being designed for the small screen rather than large ones and it was expected that a laugh track would be added to cover the dead spots. Technically the picture is television-ready, too, marked by bland production design by Jane Musky and equally undistinguished cinematography by Anastas N. Michos. Meanwhile Mark Isham’s score works overtime in an effort to add some charm and energy to the proceedings, to no avail.
Chick flicks like “Sex and the City” and “Mamma mia!” have scored big in recent months, so maybe “The Women” will attract a crowd. But compared to the deliciously catty 1939 film, this one seems not so much updated as, if not neutered, definitely declawed.