Since the days of Aristophanes, it has been comedy gold to watch women plotting and scheming out of sight of their menfolk. Yet "The Women," a remake of George Cukor's sparkling 1939 all-female 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.
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.
In short, the world of Luce and Cukor has mostly disappeared. So how do you restage a 1930s comedy of manners in contemporary terms? You strip out the context, eliminate the social history and borrow all your humor from "Sex and the City."
Ryan plays Mary Haines, 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's Haines is a simpering bore who learns to love herself.
Bening stars as Mary's best friend, Sylvia Fowler, Rosalind Russell's role in Cukor's film.
Bening has been given the broadest, sitcom laugh lines. But she doesn't go for laughs. She wants to be loved.
This is deadly in a comedy that still owes its sparks to Luce's basic setup: women competing against each other in a brutal verbal war.
In the end, English just wants to make a nice chick flick with some sassy lines. Genuine nastiness has been eliminated, while not-very-funny banter is retained.
Surprisingly, it is Candice Bergen, as Mary's mother, who brings depth and humanity to "The Women." Most likely, it's because of the role itself: a sympathetic mother figure who gives Victorian suffer-in-silence advice.
Or maybe Bergen is just an adult in a film populated by overgrown children. It's a pleasant surprise, and there aren't many others in "The Women."
-- Philip Kennicott (Sept. 12, 2008)
Contains sex-related material and drug use.