Declawed, 'Women' Lacks Bite

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008; Page C01

Since the days of Aristophanes, it's been comedy gold to watch women plotting and scheming out of sight of their menfolk. And yet "The Women," a remake of George Cukor's sparkling 1939 all-girl comedy set in New York City, falls flat. At every turn. Given its cast -- which includes Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Cloris Leachman and Bette Midler -- this is nothing short of amazing. Where did the laughs go?

They've been dying slowly ever since the original of this franchise, Clare Boothe Luce's "The Women," opened on Broadway in 1936. Luce's play, about a mild-mannered society woman who must learn to fight for her husband's fidelity, was a stew of cruel one-liners, delivered by women against women. It showed the fairer sex at its worst: vain, selfish and petty. Although popular with audiences, critics such as Brooks Atkinson declared it "poisonous," and he was right. Luce was a collaborationist, a women-hating woman, viciously caricaturing her own for the amusement of others.

The original was so brutal that Cukor softened its edges, turning it into a mix of sentimental comedy and proto-drag show. Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford helped jazz up the raw, theatrical catfight into a stylized gladiatorial spectacle, and you weren't really required to believe that it was anything other than a guilty pleasure, a chance to see great actresses going over the top.

Women have come a long way since then, and it's rather perverse of director Diane English to restage this brawl among the shards of so many shattered glass ceilings. Women can find satisfaction and social position independent of marriage. They don't need permission to work or have their own credit cards. It doesn't take a trip to Reno, Nev., to get a divorce. And there is a woman on the Republican presidential ticket.

In short, the world of Luce and Cukor has mostly disappeared. So how do you restage a 1930s comedy of manners in contemporary terms? Strip out the context, eliminate the social history and borrow all your humor from "Sex and the City."

Ryan plays Mary Haines, not as a proper Park Avenue housewife with marital troubles, but as the girl next door, living in blissful ignorance of her husband's infidelity. The original Mary Haines was a gentle creature who learned to grow claws; Ryan is a simpering bore who learns to love herself.

Bening stars as Mary's best friend, Sylvia Fowler, the Russell role in Cukor's film. The original Sylvia was a dynamo of interventional malice. In today's remake, she is a sharp-tongued but good-hearted career woman forced to make hard choices in a man's world. As heir to the brassy, luxury-loving caricatures created by Kim Cattrall in "Sex and the City" and Megan Mullally in "Will & Grace," Bening has been given the broadest sitcom laugh lines. But Bening won't go for laughs. She wants to be loved.

Which is deadly in a comedy that still owes its sparks to Luce's basic setup: women competing against one another in a brutal verbal war. Luce's laughs were malicious through and through, but they were funny because she had a serious if repellent argument to make: that divorce had so screwed up the free market of marriage that women couldn't really be blamed for treating one another like beasts.

Cukor took that idea seriously, but lightly, associating his all-star cast with barnyard animals and woodland creatures (the jungle slightly tamed) in the opening credits. English lives in a different age and obviously feels a little better about what it means to be a woman than Luce ever could. But in the end, English just wants to make a nice chick flick with some sassy lines. Genuine nastiness has been eliminated -- even the self-loathing spinster of the original has been rehabilitated into an innocuous lesbian, played by Jada Pinkett Smith -- while a not-very-funny banter is retained. And the pervasive narcissism and ambition of the 1930s have been sublimated almost entirely into shopping, a blood sport that operates as a female pressure valve. So we get the usual bad jokes about Prada and perfume -- delivered halfheartedly.

Shopping, it seems, is the last remaining corner of the shrinking feminine jungle. Everywhere else, women have aspired to and achieved dignity, but when it comes to a prowl through Saks, all bets are off, and girls grow claws again.

This kind of stinks. Not just for what it says about women, or for the buckets of cash it slops in the direction of high-end retailers and designer labels. It also stinks as the intellectual underpinnings of a full-length movie, which may be one reason that though "Sex and the City" worked as a sitcom, it got mixed reviews as 136-minute film. Fashion, for smart people, is a guilty pleasure. Fashion, in the latest iteration of "The Women," is posited as the solution to Mary's problems.

If you remove the intellectual spine from a comedy, it's no wonder it gets formless, and no surprise that most of the actresses here revert to type, having nothing better to do or say. Debra Messing plays the perpetually pregnant Edie as just another Debra Messing role: the frumpy-pretty girl who can't get her act together. Bette Midler has a few short scenes taken straight from the Bette Midler playbook: the acid-tongued vamp. And so it goes. Surprisingly, it is Candice Bergen, as Mary's mother, who brings depth and humanity to "The Women." Is this because of the working rapport she has with English after their years together on the sitcom "Murphy Brown," for which English wrote? More likely, it is in the nature of the role itself: a sympathetic (though outdated) mother figure who gives Victorian suffer-in-silence advice.

Or maybe Bergen is just an adult in a film filled with oversize children. Who knows. But it's a pleasant surprise, and there aren't many others in "The Women."

The Women (114 minutes at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sex-related material, language, some drug use and brief smoking.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company