United States, 2008
U.S. Release Date:
PG-13 (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bette Midler, Candice Bergen
Diane English, based on the 1939 screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce
Anastas N. Michos
The Women is appropriately named. For its nearly 110 minute running time, there's nary a man to be found, not even in the background of crowd scenes. This movie takes place in the same world as Sex and the City, where there are only three things that matter to women: gossiping with friends, painting men in the worst possible light, and shopping. The Women contains its fair share of all three, especially the first and third. While the dialogue lacks some of the crispness of Sex and the City, the film as a whole proves to be more tolerable because the characters aren't as fundamentally repugnant. In fact, the lead - Meg Ryan's Mary Haines - looks, sounds, and feels like Sally Albright 20 years later. If only the filmmakers had figured this out early enough to name her husband-in-absentia "Harry." (Carrie Fisher even has a cameo to strengthen the connection.)
Mary is one of four female buddies. (Sex and the City defined that proper sisterhood bonding requires a quartet. We also see this in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, an infinitely better film than either Sex and the City or The Women.) The other three sides of the quadrangle are Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening), the cutthroat editor of a women's magazine; Edie Cohen (Debra Messing), a married woman who keeps popping out kids; and Alex Fisher (Jada Pinkett Smith), the token minority/lesbian/youngster all rolled into one. The latest juicy piece of gossip to land on their plates is that Mary's supposedly loving husband, Steven, is having an affair with Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes), a perfume girl at Saks 5th Avenue. At first, Mary tries to deal with this as advised by her mother (Candice Bergen): ignore it. When that doesn't work, she confronts Crystal, then Steven, before filing for divorce. Eventually, when separated from her husband, she discovers two truths: she has not been a good mother and she has never figured out who she really is. The film's second half represents her journey of self-discovery.
The Women is based on a 1939 movie that was directed by George Cukor (and, in turn, was adapted from a play). Diane English, perhaps best known as the writer of TV's Murphy Brown, has updated it, transposing the characters 70 years into the future. The result is uneven. Some scenes sparkle: the ones featuring Candice Bergen and Bette Midler, and the mother/daughter interaction between Mary and Molly (India Ennenga). Others are overwrought, artificial, or saccharine, with the ending in particular falling into all three categories. Glaring by its omission are any scenes between Mary and Steven. I understand that the conceit of the film is that it's an "actor free" zone, but The Women handles this relationship so clumsily that its on-screen absence calls attention to itself. Having two domestic helpers talk about the break-up argument (which we never see) fails to fill the void. Would it have irreparably damaged The Women's female purity to have included a scene or two with a man? It's one thing to have an all-female cast because no men are necessary; it's another to employ contrivances to contort the script so that none appear.
The cast features an impressive array of star power, but none of these actresses, except perhaps Bergen and Midler (neither of whom has a lot of screen time), is burning at full wattage. Jada Pinkett Smith and Debra Messing feel superfluous, while Annette Bening seems to be coasting, relying on her reputation and innate charisma to pull her through. Meanwhile, Meg Ryan is doing her best to re-create the kind of characters she played back when she was box office gold. (Pre-Russell Crowe, that is.) In a way, it's impressive that she's so successful, and virtually impossible to believe she's 46 years old. (Watching her, I was reminded of a line from When Harry Met Sally in which she bemoans turning 40 – in eight years.)
This is Diane English's directing debut, and it shows. Also in evidence is her familiarity with television. The movie is shot like a TV show, with frequent intercut close-ups. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth… It becomes monotonous. There's nothing visually interesting about this film, and when English tries to do something "innovative" at the end using a split-screen, it comes across as a desperate attempt to vary The Women's visual staleness. Based on her Murphy Brown work, English has shown herself to be an adept, perceptive, and at times funny writer, but too little of that is on display here. Aside from some pointed one-liners and occasionally effective conversations, there's little in this screenplay worth savoring or remembering.
The Women faced a long and rocky road making it to the big screen, having first gained life in the mid-'90s then going through a series of false starts before being made as an independent motion picture. The success of Sex and the City saved the film from either gathering more dust on some vault shelf or the oblivion of going straight-to-DVD. It's aimed at the same audience and it's not hard to understand why. The two pictures are cut from the same cloth, although it's a little odd to find the veterans copying the relative newbies.