This update of the classic "The Women" has been sapped of its stylish bite.
What do women want? Being heard would be a nice start, so it's easy to see why "The Women," a bitchy comic melodrama that debuted on Broadway in 1936, has been brought to the screen twice. It's an all-female show of nonstop, clever talk, talk, talk.
Or it used to be. Updated and dumbed-down by writer/director Diane English (creator of TV's "Murphy Brown"), its premise remains everlastingly relevant. Annette Bening, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett-Smith play pals who discover the friend who seems to have an ideal life (Meg Ryan) is being cheated on by her husband. That still happens in the 21st century, apparently.
What doesn't survive in the present day and age is stylishly scathing dialogue. Some of the original zingers remain (one character tells an adversary, "There's a name for you, but it isn't used outside a kennel"), but most of English's contributions are sex and scatology jokes desperately in need of a laugh track.
Nor does the casting help matters. Still playing winsome girlishness as she edges toward 50, the cosmetically enhanced Ryan clucks over the decision by her mother (Candice Bergen) to have a face-lift. For Ryan to speak in support of natural beauty through her famously collagen-inflated lips gives the message an ironic twist.
While the plot focuses on the comings, goings and doings of the characters (as in, who's doing whom) the camera lingers lovingly over details of home decor and fashion. The title sequence actually defines all the characters by their choice of footwear, a decision that feels more condescending than funny. What sex was to "Sex and the City," what ABBA was to "Mamma Mia!," what pants were to "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," lifestyle voyeurism is to "The Women." The film is Hollywood's notion of a soccer mom's vision of heaven, a paradise of chic clothing, sumptuous country homes and posh restaurants. You are what you buy, seems to be the message, despite English's rote endorsement of sisterly solidarity.
Well, better to focus on the ambience than the characters. There's nary a complex, believable personality in the bunch. Eva Mendes is in full Wicked Witch mode as the perfume-counter salesgirl who nabs Ryan's man. Bening, as Ryan's best frenemy, dithers over whether career or personal loyalty is the true path to happiness. Messing is a one-woman population explosion as an eternally pregnant tag-along, and Pinkett-Smith is a demographic twofer as the African-lesbian-American of the bunch.
The swirling screenplay feels complex until you realize it's only reshuffling a cast of one-dimensional characters. When Ryan's wronged wife turns a major emotional corner, the transition is marked by changing her hairstyle from curly to straight.
The story races to a hospital-room climax that presents childbirth as loud, broad slapstick, a premise that played much better in "Knocked Up." Despite its proud legacy and promising cast, "The Women" is a miscarriage of comedy.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186