I'm not sure what the more pressing question is with regard to this recent remake of the venerable property The Women: "ohmygawd, what have they done to Meg Ryan's face?" or "ohmygawd, what have they done to Clare Boothe Luce's play?" In one of the most consternating developments in recent film history, Diane English, surely one of the strongest writers for females ever (Murphy Brown, etc.), and one who would seem to have been the perfect modern voice to adapt this 1930s bitch-fest (along with, perhaps, Nora Ephron), instead delivers an at best fitfully amusing update that is more often than not weirdly disjointed and badly unfocused. It may ultimately not be as bad as you've heard, but that's faint praise indeed.
Clare Boothe Luce found herself thrust into the fairytale land of upper crust East coast society when she married Time Magazine's Henry Luce in 1935. Her reaction to that indoctrination was the smash hit Broadway play "The Women," which was almost immediately optioned by MGM and ultimately turned into one of the most celebrated films of that most celebrated of all film years, 1939. Under the guidance of George Cukor, coming directly off of his stinging rebuke by Mayer and Selznick regarding Gone With the Wind, The Women featured just about every name female star MGM had under contract in those days, including Norma Shearer in one of her last roles, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine and, in a role she didn't want, fought against, but which ultimately became one of her all-time acting triumphs, Joan Crawford. With a cast like that you could hardly go wrong, but the film was bolstered at least as much, if not more, by the patented biting Luce wit, adapted and made just slightly more palatable for mass appeal (and/or the Hays Office) by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin.
The plot of The Women was simplicity itself--a bunch of pampered, spoiled Manhattan socialites work through various relationship travails, chief among them of which is the reaction of semi-saintly Mary Haines (Shearer in 1939, Meg Ryan, or someone who vaguely resembles her anyway, in this new version), who discovers her husband has been cheating on her. While Luce's original 1936 play version managed to work in some prescient subplots about such ostensibly "modern" ideas as the dangers of gossip and the harm divorce brings to children, The Women, after all was said and done, was a tour de force of Dorothy Parker-lite wit, one caustic line after another spit out with aplomb by an all female cast. If the 1939 film version toned that down (eliminating, for example, any passing reference to one minor character's lesbianism), it kept a Howard Hawksian display of rapid-fire overlapping dialogue and razor sharp performance stylings that made the film unique in its day, if it hasn't exactly worn as well as some other Cukor efforts from that era.
I'm really not sure where to pin the on-again, off-again hit-or-miss patchwork feeling that haunts most of this new version of The Women. Perhaps it's due to writer-director Diane English's development hell period with this piece, years of trying to fashion the script for such long since departed stars as Julia Roberts. There's no doubt that a kernel of an excellent foundation remains in this version, but it's surrounded by so much extraneous information and undeveloped plot strands that I have to wonder if large swaths of material were left on the cutting room floor. For example, once Mary and her never seen husband go the route of divorce, Mary's daughter Molly morphs into a cigarette smoking, sex-discussing, overly made up 13 year old for one scene, only to magically morph back into her sweet, innocent self for the duration of the film. There's absolutely no clue given for at least her return to her "real" self, other than her heart to heart scene with Annette Bening's character, Mary's best friend, fashion magazine editor Sylvie (the nonstop gossip played by Rosalind Russell in the original version). Other plot developments seem to appear like Venus springing from the half shell, like Mary's sudden interment at a sort of Betty Ford clinic for rich divorcees, where she gets a largely ridiculous cameo scene with Bette Midler. In fact it's typical of this film's occasional narcissism that the Midler character, evidently based on the oft-married Countess from the first film, is here a Hollywood agent. On a related side note, it was probably not a good idea to have Candice Bergen, as Ryan's mother, make a joke about plastic surgery as she's staring at the remains of Ryan's face.
Finally, English tries, largely ineffectively and unwisely in my opinion, to inject a little proto-feminist moralizing in this version, which also tends to weigh it down. When Molly, Mary's daughter, has to spout lines about feeling fat and wanting to look like the models on Sylvie's magazine covers, it's too obvious and self-serving to really accomplish its goals. Once again, this strand is never developed or followed up on, which makes its inclusion, as well as others of this ilk, harder to swallow in the long run--these moments seem like debate points that are being ticked off by an automaton instead of well written and integrative plot points that spring naturally out of character.
In a less important qualm, Mary becomes her own boss and a fashion designer of a boutique collection. The 1939 version famously contained a Technicolor hommage to Adrian's over-the-top fashion sense, which in the context of that already over-costumed film actually worked. Here, the "fashions" that Mary designs and which are paraded down the catwalk are all so uniformly hideous that I half expected to see Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum run screaming from the room.
All of this said, there are some winning moments in this version of The Women. The star power can't be beat--Ryan, Bening, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith as the main quartet all do fine work (if Smith overplays her swaggering lesbian a bit), and the supporting cast, including a spunky and wonderful Cloris Leachman as Ryan's housekeeper, get some laughs along the way. While there's nothing even remotely close to Ryan's hilarity, or even sweet natured giggle producing quieter moments, from When Harry Met Sally, for instance, she gets a good moment or two, especially in a scene where, desperate for junk food, she pulls out a cube of butter and begins devouring it whole as Leachman looks on aghast. Eva Mendes, in the Crawford role of Crystal, the perfume saleswoman who leads Haines' husband astray, is serpentine and shallow in equal measure. If the role in this version doesn't have the depth and nuance that the 1939 version did, Mendes plays her few scenes for all they're worth, though, once again, English for some unknown reason decides to go for a cheap shot in the denouement instead of using Luce's original, better "comeuppance" version.
This should have been a dream project. An updated version of The Women is, on its face, a really, really good idea. Unfortunately too much of Luce was jettisoned without being replaced by a bitter enough dose of English's own, usually quite excellent, acerbity. You get dribs and drabs of occasionally fine comic moments, but not enough to make this the knockout punch it really should have been. At least you have the strange amalgam that has become Meg Ryan's face to keep you occupied if nothing else captures your fancy.