In George Cukor's 1939 movie "The Women," the female characters twitter and gabble like a shaken cage full of canaries. In the 1956 MGM musical remake "The Opposite Sex," they declaim their feelings, or belt them out in song. Diane English's new remake "The Women" completes a trifecta -- across nearly 70 years, no one adapting Clare Boothe Luce's play "The Women" has figured out how women actually talk and act. That was fine for Luce and for Cukor, who were deliberately mocking rich, spoiled society wives. But first-time writer-director English (creator and producer of "Murphy Brown") seems to want viewers to sympathize with her toxic, shallow characters, and that's far harder than laughing at them.
English's update of Luce's play (and the 1939 screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, also credited) tosses out most of the dialogue but keeps the broad particulars of the plot, then crams in enough extra detail to choke the story into shapelessness. In one plot thread, part-time fashion designer Mary Haines ( Meg Ryan) learns through a gossipy manicurist that her husband is having an affair with perfume-counter clerk Crystal Allen ( Eva Mendes). In another, Mary's brittle shopaholic friend Sylvie Fowler ( Annette Bening) struggles to elevate the tone at a tawdry Vogue-like fashion magazine.
The rest of the action is hyperactive and incidental, centered on women clustering together to trade one-liners, or putting their heads together for serious, important talks about how to deal with men. Like Cukor's film, English's version of "The Women" doesn't have a single male speaking role; it packs its sequences with a dizzying flock of chirruping ladies, including Carrie Fisher, Cloris Leachman, Debi Mazar and Bette Midler in small roles. Then there's Candice Bergen as Mary's ruthlessly practical mother, and Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith as Mary and Sylvie's one-note friends.
It's a high-powered cast, but it has painfully little to work with, apart from widely varying humor. Sometimes it's absurdist, as in the ridiculous "Terminator"-like scene in which Bening scopes out Saks in computer-animated shop-o-vision. More often, it's just stale, as when Smith brings out a series of cheap sexist stereotypes to explain why being gay is great. (Apparently male partners don't like asking for directions, but lesbian partners love it.)
English seems to be shooting for a brightly artificial Nora Ephron tone, but it curdles rapidly among all the strained dialogue and screeching deliveries. Apart from Mendes' smug, catty man-eater, none of the characters particularly stands out as interesting, let alone sympathetic. As in Cukor's film, they're all rich, spoiled and full of themselves, but where Cukor reveled in catfights and gossip, English forces her characters to look serious and solemn as they live, learn and love, all to the tune of soppy piano accompaniment. There's no real fun in their lives: They have careers and children to worry about, as well as straying, betraying men.
But where the complexities of 21st-century life are meant to strike a chord with viewers, English pushes them away with a hefty dose of modern crassness. Norma Shearer sighed theatrically in the Mary Haines role because her cheating husband squandered their "special connection" on another woman; Ryan snarls that he had no right to stray, given that she can "suck the nails out of a board." Where Shearer pined theatrically, Ryan dunks a stick of butter in cocoa and sugar and crams it into her mouth while yelling at her servants.
The one update that feels true to life is Mary's tween daughter, Molly. Rather than clinging to walls and wailing for "Mother dear" and "Daddy darling" not to separate, Molly (India Ennenga) tries to live down to the fashion-industry standards on display in Bening's magazine, then mopes because smoking, starving herself, underdressing and contemplating sex still don't make her feel beautiful. English overplays the theme, with Molly explaining herself in mannered detail to Sylvie, but at least it's a scenario that real women might recognize. The rest of the film, with its wish-fulfillment gushiness, its lame humor and its limp stereotypes, is straight out of a terrible chick-lit novel.
But most surprisingly, English neglects the original movie's best facet: the glamorous designs, gorgeous cinematography and polished production of an old-Hollywood production. "The Women" doesn't come anywhere near its technical prowess. Uneven lighting makes the stars' faces fuzzy or lopsided. Thickly applied makeup and unflatteringly artificial hair make Bening and Ryan look like Barbie dolls fresh from the factory. The sound design is distractingly flat, and the music is overwrought. "What do you think this is, some kind of 1930s movie?" Mary bellows at her mother at one point. If only it were.
See the trailer and find local showtimes for "The Women."