In retrospect, the most stunning fact about the mess that is the 2008 remake of The Women is the reputation that its screenplay had acquired over the past 14 years. This was one of those legendary unproduced scripts that everyone wanted to get their hooks into--an updated remake of the 1939 George Cukor film (itself based on Claire Boothe Luce's 1936 play), penned by Diane English (creator of TV's Murphy Brown). James L. Brooks was originally on board to direct, and over the years, just about every big-name actress was rumored to be vying for roles--Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, Ashley Judd, Marisa Tomei, Queen Latifah, Uma Thurman, Anne Hathaway, Lisa Kudrow, etc. Word would leak out about English's periodic table readings, and the buzz was that the script was so good, so filled with that rarest of Hollywood beasts (the well-written female role), that various all-star casts were being assembled, each more anxious than the next to spout English's witty bon mots.
So it's a shock that so many fine actresses were so antsy to get involved with a script as tin-eared, cliché-ridden, and dumbed-down as this one. Ryan stars as Mary Haines, a clothing designer, wife, and mother who discovers (in a credibility-straining session with a chatty manicurist) that her husband is cheating on her with a Sak's perfume girl (Eva Mendes). She's unaware that her best friend Sylvie (Annette Bening) already got this information from the same manicurist (a mighty slim hook to swing your entire plot on, this manicurist), so she and their friends Edie (Debra Messing) and Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith) scope the "perfume slut" out and try to advise Mary, who gets plenty of bad advice from not only her friends but her mother (Candice Bergen).
The ingredients are here for the kind of nasty, smart, funny picture that the trailers (and the film's roots) promised, but the entire enterprise has been infected with Sex and The City disease; it's more about accessories than wit. The sharp edges of the original material have been softened to the point of sogginess--instead of a fast-talking comedy, we've got a soppy mess, a gooey ode to empowerment and sisterhood that traffics in the most tired, age-old stereotypes about what men and women are.
Just about the first joke in the film, for example, comes when Bening enters Sak's and we go to a point-of-view shot for her--a T2-style computerized inventory of everything around her, its value, and whether it is a "must buy." Get it? Because women love to shop! I also learned from The Women that women like to play games, and cry a lot. I guess I never valued the intelligence and complexity of the women in my life, because they're all a hell of a lot more interesting than any of these people.
English's screenplay is even more offensive when it comes to insights on men--early in the film, Pinkett Smith's character, a swaggering lesbian, runs off into a litany of complaints about men, and the whole thing is so trite and tired, I'm amazed she didn't throw in that old chestnut about us leaving the toilet seat up. And speaking of Pinkett Smith, homosexual women don't get off much better here; her entire characterization basically consists of sitting like a dude.
And the dialogue... oh, the dialogue. It's just plain exhausting. The exposition of the first act is intolerable, a never-ending series of statements summarizing things everyone in the scene knows ("Mary and I have been best friends since college!"). But once that's out of the way, the actual "conversations" (I use the term loosely) are even more banal. There are no transitions in them; every line is a bridge to another platitude, each dialogue scene little more than a series of pronouncements and out-of-left-field confessional monologues, usually accompanied by a quiet, plinky music cue and an ever-so-slight dolley in to close-up. In a film full of terrible dialogue scenes, it's hard to pinpoint the worst, but my vote goes to Bening's heart-to-heart with Ryan's daughter, which is about as painful as cinema gets.
English's pacing is brutal; the film runs a punishing 114 minutes but feels hours longer, its exorbitant running time padded by endless montages (including one where Ryan's personal growth is tracked by the pictures and cut-out saying she places on her wall collage, as if she's 15 or something).
The script's attempts to cleverly comment on the story's old-fashioned elements (Ryan actually says, "What is this, a 1930s movie?") fall flat, sounding like English trying to apologize for the least of her film's problems. No, if there's anything to be ashamed of, it's the cloying, too-easy third act (a fashion show, if you can believe it), which would be sickening enough if it didn't lead to a climax in--no kidding--a hospital delivery room. Yeah, they did that.
The performances are decent. Ryan is better than she's been in years (in spite of her unfortunate plastic surgery, which is genuinely distracting), and Bening is so fun to watch that you wish they'd give her something interesting to say. Mendes' role doesn't give her much to do but look great in lingerie, which she accomplishes. Messing actually gets the lion's share of the laughs, more out of reactions than her dull dialogue, but her and Smith pretty much disappear for the second act. Cloris Leachman gets some laughs as well, but she's wrung humor from weak material before (Spanglish, anyone?), while a few other good actresses who don't get enough work (Carrie Fisher, Joanna Gleason, Lynn Whitfield) make welcome (if too-brief) appearances.
But ultimately, in spite of the best efforts of the cast, we just can't make ourselves care. Not to sound like a class warrior, but there is something about the bubble mentality that makes The Women particularly unlikable; these people are so rich, and so privileged, that it's hard to work up much interest in their trivial problems. Perhaps there was a time when we wanted to be transported into that world, but it's harder to create sympathy for the ridiculously rich these days--though it can be done, and if you'd like proof, I'd direct you to an infinitely better film about four upper-class women: Nicole Holofcener's Friends With Money. That film is smart, funny, complex, and insightful--in other words, everything that The Women is not. If you're thinking of seeing The Women, see Friends With Money instead. If you've already seen it and you're thinking of seeing The Women, trust me, just see Friends With Money again.
The Women is presented on a flipper disc, with a single-layer presentation of the film in 1.85:1 widescreen on one side and full-frame on the other. The image isn't terribly vibrant--it's clean but a little dull, and the single-layer mastering does cause some fleeting compression artifacts.
The 5.1 mix is a good one--Mark Isham's score pops, sound effects are nicely spread, and every single terrible line of dialogue is absolutely crisp and clear in the center channel. You won't miss a word, if that's a good thing.
Not much in the bonus department here, though you'll hear no complaints about from this corner. Two Additional Scenes (6:23 total) are included, notable only for very brief additional screen time for the underused Bette Midler and Anna Gasteyer.
"The Women, The Legacy" (18:44) is the first of two featurettes, this one providing some background and history of the play and earlier film (with clips). This portion of the featurette actually does the film a disservice--aside from obviously suffering in comparison, it also includes an interview where English talks about how playwright Luce "loathed" the "idle rich" and wrote the play as a "poison pen letter" to them, a stark contrast to the remake's embracing of materialism and conspicuous consumption. After that, it moves into standard behind-the-scenes stuff, with fawning, nauseating testimonials from the cast about what a thrill it was to be involved in such a special film, blah blah blah.
The second featurette is even worse: "The Women Behind The Women" (10:00) is the first DVD feature I've ever seen with a sponsor (Dove) and it plays like a long, bad infomerical for an inferior beauty product. An obviously scripted set visit by some kind of "youth reporter," this one is even harder to get through than the film itself.
I know what you're thinking: The smartass thirty-something guy writes a mean review eviscerating the "chick flick," but who cares, it's not meant for him. But here's the thing: I watched The Women with my wife, a beautiful and brilliant New York career woman, and you know what? I stole most of the material for this review from our conversation about it afterwards. She loathed the film even more than I did, and that means The Women missed its target audience by a mile. This is a film for no one. Skip It.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.