Women Without Men

There are so many things so wrong with Diane English’s limp update of the 1936 Clare Booth Luce play, The Women, that Meg Ryan’s starring role is nowhere near the top of the list. Of course, Ryan is rarely so bad as to warrant all of her negative press—one so often sees that wrinkling of the nose, followed by the disapproving query, “Oh, is that that Meg Ryan movie?” Her iconic position is that of the exemplar of all of Hollywood’s worst instincts, vis a vis the chick flick just refuses to die.

For every You’ve Got Mail there’s a Courage Under Fire or In the Cut to show that Ryan’s quite a bit more than the twinkle-eyed blonde that lives permanently in the popular audience’s mind’s eye. That being said, Ryan could have turned in an Oscar-worthy performance here and it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference.

Just like in Luce’s play, and George Cukor’s 1939 film version, The Women is about what happens after a woman discovers that her husband is having an affair and she finds that it’s almost more difficult figuring out how to handle her friends and their reactions than deciding whether or not to divorce the louse. Ryan plays the woman in question, Mary Haines, the kind of calm and collected mother that others love to hate.

With her palatial house and solitary daughter to manage (and a couple of domestics to assist with all that), and a sideline career in working for her father’s clothing company, Haines pretty much has it all; except for a faithful husband. Her clutch of close friends, a nosy trio that seems initially more interested in good gossip than helping Haines out, all proffer advice once the truth is out in the open, but different agendas are always in play.

What English does right here is keep Luce and Cukor’s basic conceit: no men. With only one exception (a no-surprise surprise that comes at the end), there are literally no men on screen at any time, even as background extras in busy street scenes. The women may be seen talking to men on the phone, or hearing them drive away, but that’s about it. Theoretically, the vacuum that those men leave behind would allow dramatic space for the female performers to then hash out their differences and opinions without distraction. Of course, the play had a pretty cynical view of many of its women, showing how they couldn’t stop obsessing over men even when they were nowhere to be seen.

While keeping a central kernel of the original story intact, what English does wrong here is essentially everything else. Mostly known for being a producer and writer for Murphy Brown, English seems strangely stuck here as she tries to wrangle Luce’s acidic words into something more soothing and palatable, as though female audiences have somehow grown weaker and more frail since the 1930s. Gone is the ripping badinage and astute chronicling of societal stature. In its place is left some lightly glossed humor (best delivered by Debra Messing, about the only performer who emerges here with any sort of dignity, even if she’s too briefly used) and many ponderous tete-a-tetes between Haines and her supposedly best friend, Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening).

Since this a modern women’s picture, crass consumerism must, of course, be ratcheted up as much as possible. And so English packs the screen with an endless barrage of standard-issue uptown-girl clichés, complete with a faux-Sex and the City-style score and fawning Saks Fifth Avenue placement. This would have its place in a bouncy urban comedy, of course, if it all didn’t seem so third-hand and phony; even Carrie Bradshaw had to worry about paying a bill on occasion.

And did it need to be said that this cinematic Manhattan is a rich white woman’s paradise, as well? As one of Haines’ (more rarely seen) friends, Jada Pinkett Smith has the (token) honor of being the only drop of color in this tapioca assemblage, and gay to boot. (One can almost hear the calculation as the filmmakers cast Smith, who is utterly wrong for the part, figuring that they had taken care of two interest groups with one fell swoop; it’s just that kind of movie.)

Here, danger comes from the lower class and minorities. The news of Haines’ husband’s dalliance gets spread by a loose tongued manicurist from Queens (she’s played by Debi Mazar to maximum outer-borough effect), while the woman he’s fooling around with is a Hispanic gold-digger (Eva Mendes in full bombshell glory). Of course, there’s no way that such coarse creatures could stand a chance against the Architectural Digest crowd.

Luce’s original was similarly confined to the upper crust. Nevertheless, Cukor’s version hewed pretty close to Luce’s clear-eyed appreciation of how women needed to look out for themselves and their friends in a man’s world, but all too often didn’t. A conservative in many respects who held firmly anti-feminist viewpoints, Luce was hardly the kind to wait around for a man’s approval. She worked her way up at Vanity Fair, becoming managing editor in a few quick years, before working as foreign correspondent for Life, becoming the first congresswoman from Connecticut, and serving as ambassador to Italy and advisor to numerous presidents. It’s hard to imagine that this film’s fuzzy Real Simple take on Haines’ marital dilemma would have impressed such a self-made woman as Luce.

In Cukor’s film (screenplay by Anita Loos), the dialogue crackled as it was delivered by a finely tuned cast that couldn’t help but make English’s replacements look pallid in comparison. It’s not a fair fight in most instances, how could even the talented Mendes measure up to Joan Crawford’s grand booziness? But while Rosalind Russell is hard to beat under any circumstances, Bening should have made it a close call, instead of turning in a performance that mistakes stiff for brittle, and clueless for conflicted.

For his take on The Women, Cukor presented a stiff drink; the battle of the sexes writ large and verbose, with the less interesting gender left out completely. After discovering Mr. Haines’ dalliance, the women decamp for Nevada and its famous quickie divorces, whereupon they set upon each other in a series of sharp exchanges that illustrate the complicated mix of power and weakness that a patriarchal society bestows upon women. By comparison, English’s version of this film barely nudges from its Martha Stewart interiors, exchanging insights for platitudes; it’s a cup of lukewarm tea, without even a biscuit on the side.