How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways… Diane English's long-gestating remake of Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 bitchfest is so consistently, outrageously wrongheaded in every way it's hard to know where to start, but the fact that it turns a viciously knowing satire of privileged female misbehavior into a "you go girl!" knockoff of the SEX AND THE CITY movie (2008) is as good a place as any.
Luce's play revolves around the gossipy, backbiting friendships that bind a group of financially privileged women and, to put not too fine a point on it, ripped them to haute couture shreds. It's often dismissed as misogynistic and old fashioned, but Luce herself always insisted she wasn't out to paint women overall as shallow, conniving, man-obsessed gold diggers of varying degrees of sophistication -- just society women with too much money and time on their hands to bother cultivating anything but their jewelry collections. In English's vaguely feminist telling, Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) is the perfect modern superwoman: She keeps a lovely Connecticut home for her husband, Wall Street wolf Steven; is a caring -- if oblivious -- mother to her confused 11-year-old daughter, Molly (India Ennenga); and designs clothes for her father's firm. But to Mary's shock and dismay, a chatty Saks Fifth Avenue manicurist (Debi Mazar) lets slip that her BFF, perfume spritzer Crystal Allen (Eva Mendez, who's no Joan Crawford), is having an affair with a rich man named, yes, Steven Haines. For advice and emotional support, Mary turns to her best girlfriends: vaguely artsy Earth mother Edie Cohen (Debra Messing); fashion-magazine editrix Sylvie Fowler (Annette Bening, who's no Rosalind Russell), who, unbeknownst to the gal-pack, is hanging onto her high-powered job by her perfectly manicured nails; sassy lesbian essayist Alex Fisher (Jada Pinkett Smith), who's dating a very angry supermodel, assiduously not working on her new book and adds two tokens in one to the otherwise blandly Anglo-hetero mix. They all tell her to dump Steven's cheating ass: This is the 21st century, for Goddess' sake! Mary also solicits the opinions of her no-nonsense housekeeper (Cloris Leachman), Molly's fresh-faced Danish nanny (Tilly Scott Pedersen), the tough-talking Hollywood agent (Bette Midler) she meets at an exclusive yoga retreat, and her own pragmatic mother (Candice Bergen), who supplies the film's only genuinely biting lines and suggests that Mary step back and look at the big picture before acting rashly.
George Cukor directed the first film version of The Women in 1939 from a screenplay by Jane Murfin and the famously sharp-tongued Anita Loos, of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDS fame, and the result set a very high bar. But the much-derided musical remake, THE OPPOSITE SEX (1956), looks like laser-cut brilliance next to English's bland, tin-eared reimagining, which manages to suggest both that women have come a long way, baby, and that they need to look to their pubescent daughters for personal validation. Not only is that not progressive, but it's also not funny. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh