A cheating husband, a backstabbing best friend and more estrogen than an Emily’s List fundraiser may have struck B.O. gold for “The Women” back in 1939, but prospects for this pseudo-feisty remake feel iffy at best today. True to the original, Diane English’s 21st-century spin features a strict no-boys policy, though she does little to update the material to the modern world. Like being locked in a closet full of cats, the old-fashioned all-girl scenario ensures the screen isn’t the only place men will be missing. Female interest should be strong, but don’t expect “Sex and the City”-size turnouts.
English (“Murphy Brown”) has rounded up as diverse a cast as possible, as if hoping each actress will snare a different demo. There’s Annette Bening as a Kim Cattrall-style career girl, Meg Ryan playing handy housewife to a Wall Street tycoon, Debra Messing as a perpetually pregnant baby-maker and Jada Pinkett Smith representing multiple minorities as their Sapphic soul sister. After asking auds to believe in such a mismatched sorority, the screenplay bends over backward to keep men out, examining their behavior in girls-only habitats, from fat farms and garden parties to lingerie stores and lesbian bars.
Pic slavishly preserves key plot points from the original, however anachronistic they seem in the modern world. It all starts when a blabbermouth manicurist at Saks Fifth Avenue spills the beans that the vixen behind the perfume counter (played by Eva Mendes) has landed a new sugar daddy, not realizing the rumor will soon get back to the man’s wife, Mary Haines (Ryan).
In Clare Boothe Luce’s original play, that bit of news catalyzes a storm of backstabbing and one-upswomanship among a close-knit circle of upper-crust dames — the perfect fodder for biting social satire — but English isn’t out for blood. Here, the news brings the group of friends even closer together as they advise Mary on whether she should leave her (unseen) husband or confront the hussy who stole her man.
Bening plays Sylvie, the editor of struggling beauty magazine Cachet — essentially a watered-down Miranda Priestly. When one of her assistants pitches an all-revenge issue, Sylvie dismisses the idea as outmoded. Indeed, this reimagining of “The Women” is less about getting even than about inspiring that same mushy sense of female empowerment you might find in a Tyler Perry meller, complete with manic mood swings and full-blown diva moments.
But even there, English struggles trying to create the kind of feel-good experience that seems to come so naturally to femme helmers like Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron. This isn’t one of those instant chick-flick classics that will draw viewers back in every time they come across it channel-surfing. Much of the behavior feels unnatural (there’s a funny bit in which Mary binges on a stick of butter after kicking her husband out of the house, but other gags simply don’t work), and there’s just no reconciling the movie’s preoccupation about Botox and facelifts with the heavily doctored appearances of its leading ladies.
Confounding the matter even further is the involvement of Dove, an extension of the company’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” and an example of new horizons in product placement. Sylvie not only uses Dove lotion but also finds it romantic that Mary’s philandering husband describes his wife as smelling like soap.
Messing and Pinkett Smith have very limited screentime; cameo appearances by Candice Bergen, Cloris Leachman, Carrie Fisher and Bette Midler (as well as newcomer India Ennenga as Mary’s daughter) get nearly as much play as these two underwritten members of the movie’s central sisterhood. Ryan and Bening fare better: Bening’s right at home in the skin of a working professional, recalling aspects of her perf in “The American President,” while Ryan exudes much the same no-nonsense charm of her “When Harry Met Sally” days. Neither role is a stretch, but they play to both actresses’ strengths.
English’s most significant improvement on the original is her point that a “breakup” between best girlfriends sets everybody back even more than any cheating husband could. She also cooks up a far better justification for the movie’s big fashion show. On the fashion front, “The Women” delivers from head to toe. Opening montage introduces all the characters by their signature footwear, and auds even get two Ryan hairstyles for the price of one (though like the performance, both are variations on earlier roles).
Music choices aren’t such a good fit, with Mark Isham’s jazzy score making this estrogen fest feel a bit frenzied in the spaces between Chris Douridas’ mostly forgettable pop-tune picks. A signature song would’ve gone a long way to remind auds that these four incredibly different women have a lot more than man trouble in common.