3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Just when you thought the big screen treatment of “Sex and the City” was the girls'-night-out movie event of the year, here comes “The Women,” writer/director/producer Diane English's catty update of George Cukor's 1939 film of the same name, to snatch that title with a well-manicured claw. It's taken nearly 15 years for English, who won three Emmys as the creator of the hit TV series, “Murphy Brown,” to get her version of Cukor's classic (which starred Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Crawford) to the screen, with various studios, directors, and actresses (including Julia Roberts) attached in various capacities along the way. Finally and, perhaps, fortuitously, her finished product is revealed, the same year that “SATC” broke box office records to become the biggest-selling female-driven hit of all time. Without the built-in fan base that its estrogen-fueled counterpart had going for it, “The Women” likely won't top those sales, but it's still the (slightly) better film. It's just as fun, just as funny, and it succeeds where “SATC” fell short.
Apart from release dates and demographics, 2008's all-girl features have much more in common – so much that it's impossible not to compare the two. They're built from the same blueprint: four Manhattan women balance work, love, and their checkbooks and three of them eventually corral around the one in the biggest relationship crisis. Even the characters are interchangeable: Carrie is replaced by Mary (Meg Ryan, who's been on board with English from the beginning), a selfless part-time fashion designer whose husband's infidelity is the central plot; Samantha is swapped out for Sylvie (Annette Bening, on point), a high-powered magazine editor with that same fiery independence and societal influence; Charlotte becomes Edie (Debra Messing, goofy as ever), the hopeful, conservative mommy of the group; and Miranda is replaced by Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith, underused), a headstrong, lesbian author with Ms. Hobbes' same dry disposition. It's as if we left the first quartet and were transported across town to hang with their (slightly) older and (slightly) wiser friends. The trip was worth it.
I haven't seen Cukor's original but I do know that English stayed true to it in at least one way: not a single man appears on screen throughout the entire film. That's right, even all the extras are female – not a suit in sight. Well, not of the three-piece variety, anyway. Pantsuits do abound, as English fills her sparkling frames with superwomen of the 21st century. Early on, at a posh luncheon held at Mary's swanky Connecticut mansion, we meet dozens of her high-society friends, who fan out like living lawn ornaments across her gorgeous estate, gossiping as they go. Edie is pregnant yet again. Alex is still working on the follow-up to her last New York Times bestseller, while her starving supermodel girlfriend drags her to anger management classes. Sylvie's Blackberry is practically an extension of her arm, her thumb scrolling emails while her eyes scroll the scene from behind her Gucci sunglasses. She's harboring the biggest secret of them all: while getting her nails done at Saks Fifth Avenue (the setting for many critical and comical scenes in the film), Sylvie learns from her manicurist that Mary's husband, Steven, a Wall Street bigwig, is sleeping with Crystal (Eva Mendes), the sexy “spritzer girl” behind the perfume counter. Sylvie's afraid to tell Mary the dirt, unaware that she's been dished the same pile – from the same manicurist.
That first luncheon never really ends, for we bounce around from one luxe location to the next (high-end boutiques, five-star restaurants, high-rise offices), all of them populated by gals and their gossip. Look left, look right, all we see are the bright colors of designer duds. Yet English doesn't over-fluff her ruffles and stuff the fashion in our faces, a fault of “SATC” that left me – a fan of the show – distracted and displeased. Here, rather than upstaging it, the styles simply compliment the substance. “SATC” featured a needless runway show sequence at Bryant Park, thrown in, presumably, just to throw more labels at the audience. “The Women” has such a sequence but it serves the story and the development of a lead character. “SATC” also tacked on a pregnancy, but the element lost the weight it deserved, overshadowed by the film's more prominent storylines. “The Women” has a pregnancy and a birth scene which, albeit a little ridiculous, finds a perfect place in the script. Both films attempt to juggle a lot of characters, inevitably leaving some with little to do. Pinkett Smith's Alex, whose presence really only fills a cultural quota, is sidelined nearly out of memory. Apart from her va-va-voom entrance, Mendes' character is more discussed than shown. Bette Midler shows up to revisit “The First Wives Club” and add a name to the bill but she and her scene could be lifted entirely without any damage to the finished product. Candice Bergen, on the other hand, is utilized perfectly and, as Mary's mother and Carrie's former boss, she embodies the link between the two films.
English's script is crammed with commonplace chick flick-isms and yet, I didn't mind. It all seemed right at home in this world, where girls rule and boys - presumably, since we don't see any - drool (over them). I was intrigued and impressed by English's empowering adherence to keeping men out entirely. Besides, who needs 'em? The cast, oversized or not, is superb and a welcome addition to a growing line of strong female characters. Bening delivers her usual knockout punches as a smart woman juggling loyalty and success (think “The Devil Wears Prada”'s Miranda Priestly with a conscience). Cloris Leachman is a laugh riot as Mary's trusty housekeeper, who represents a whole new tier of scandalous scuttlebutt. And, I'm just gonna go ahead and say it: is this the return of Meg Ryan? Bright and youthful (if you can get past that lip surgery), her performance, featuring a much-needed character makeover, feels like the rebirth of an actress who once all but dominated Hollywood. Whether or not “The Women” puts her back on the map, it'll likely pave the way for more Meg Ryans, or, at the very least, get people talking.