“I don’t want it all,” Annette Bening’s chic character in The Women admits. “I just want a slice.”
She could have been describing the movie itself. Despite its good intentions and high hopes, The Women is not a good movie. It does, though, have plenty of nifty slices–namely the wonderful actresses in the large all-woman cast.
First things first: this version of The Women is not a remake of the 1939 classic starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard. That film was based on the Broadway hit written by social activist Clare Boothe Luce who satirized her sister Manhattan socialites as backstabbing man-hungry gossips.
Director/writer Diane English, of the trend-setting feminist TV series Murphy Brown, “updated” the old movie into her idealized vision of contemporary female empowerment. It’s a laudable goal in real life, but in entertainment, it means characters can’t be snarky to one another–all the bite and burlesque absurdity of the original has been de-fanged into politically correct sisterliness. The result is a tasty, lightweight bon-bon.
Mary Haines is a frazzled Martha Stewart wannabe. She wears a pretty skirt while she plants perennials in her Connecticut garden. At the enormous charity benefit she holds at her estate, she eschews hiring a caterer and makes all the food herself. She coordinates a smart-aleck housekeeper (9-time Emmy winner, Cloris Leachman) and squeezes in quality time with her perky daughter Molly (India Ennenga, Frost). In sum, she’s totally exhausting. But Mary looks great because she’s played by Meg Ryan (Proof of Life), who at age 47, has somehow managed to pull off looking like a high school cheerleader.
Looking her real age and terrific, too, is Mary’s best friend, Sylvie Fowler (Annette Bening, Being Julia), a magazine editor fighting to keep her high profile career. Mary’s other friends are earth mother Edie Cohen (Debra Messing, TV’s Will & Grace) who’s pregnant with her fifth child, and laconic Alex Fisher (Jada Pinkett Smith, Collateral), a tightly-coiled lesbian novelist with writer’s block and a fondness for women who flunked out of anger management. Why these women of disparate ages and backgrounds are friends is a total mystery, but they hug a lot, squeal in unison, and spend hours shopping at Saks.
While enduring the warp-speed blathering of a Saks manicurist, Mary finds out that her husband is having an affair with the incredibly sexy “spritzer girl” who works at the perfume counter on the first floor. This is Crystal Allen, played to bad girl perfection by Eva Mendes (Hitch). Mary is devastated. Her friends, of course, have already known about the affair, and they gather around her like protective Valkyries.
When Mary reveals the news to her mother, played by the incredibly cool Candice Bergen (TV’s Murphy Brown and Boston Legal), Mom shocks Mary with her advice on how to handle a cheating husband. Bergen’s performance is so subtly poignant it sends chills up your spine.
More worthy scenes feature the film’s other veteran actresses. A barely recognizable Carrie Fisher has only one scene–and it’s done entirely while she’s pedaling an exercycle. She’s a scheming gossip columnist snake who blackmails Sylvie into being disloyal to Mary. Later Mary shares a late-night joint and gets world-weary wisdom from Leah “The Countess” Miller, an oft-married Hollywood agent goddess, played with delectable wickedness by the always radiant Bette Midler (Then She Found Me).
After knocking herself out trying to please everyone else in her life, Mary gets her consciousness raised and finally decides to get a new hair cut and be–herself. Her friends are only too happy to applaud her hard-won success. Hokey, for sure, but it did bring a lump to my throat. I felt girlie and giggly as I walked out of the theatre–and you sure can’t say that about too many movies these days.