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English's 'The Women' is scorned

The Baltimore Sun

In Diane English's bogus new version of The Women, starring Meg Ryan as the virtuous housewife and Eva Mendes as the vamp who steals her husband away, there's no longer a brilliant set piece on a dude ranch, and no one comes out smelling like a cactus rose. In a way, The First Wives Club had a better idea of how to remake The Women: Play up the slapstick and let three inspired clowns, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler, pratfall their way to glory.

You can gauge the misplaced priorities of The Women by how it cuts Midler down to a couple of uninspired scenes. She plays the rebel at a fat farm who delivers the advice that sets Ryan's Mary Haines on the road to healing: She should do what only she wants for a change. Murphy Brown creator English has retained the original's all-female cast of characters (the first remake, The Opposite Sex, in 1956, added men as well as music). English wrongheadedly updates the film by replacing catty negative stereotypes with equally shallow and less-funny positive stereotypes.

Some stage-comedy hits are production-proof, but The Women is not one of them. Clare Boothe Luce's melodramatic farce about the curdled lives of coddled Manhattan wives and lovers ran for 666 performances on Broadway and spawned that 1939 movie with a reputation greater than its worth. The burlesque charge of the original play and film comes from Luce's crude, zesty exposure of the gold-digging, gossip-ridden rivalries beneath the gloss of New York's swank set.

Beloved by many, the 1939 hit is one of MGM's all-star specials, featuring Rosalind Russell and Joan Fontaine, as well as Norma Shearer as Mary Haines and Joan Crawford as her nemesis, Crystal Allen. But it's shockingly conventional in its attitudes toward straying husbands and grasping, catlike women, even by the standards of its time. It's saved by a spunky convocation of divorcees on the train to Reno, Nev., (and the hilarity that ensues when they get there) and a couple of great performances, notably Paulette Goddard's. Her body warmth busts the brittleness of her material; her scrappiness and wisecracks emerge from an abundance of high spirits.

In one of the new movie's few witty revisions, English makes Mary's 30-something writer friend (in Luce's play, she's smart yet also virginal) a svelte and sexually aggressive lesbian, played with amusing dash by the always underexploited Jada Pinkett Smith. This film's biggest laugh comes when Smith's uninhibited writer sees Mendes and blurts out, "She is fiiiine."

The setup remains the same: Mary Haines' friend Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell then, Annette Bening now) discovers that Mary's husband is seeing Crystal, the department-store perfume gal. But Sylvia is no longer an incorrigible gossip. She spreads the information to Mary's closest pals because she can't hold it in and she doesn't know what to do about it. No longer obsessed with the comfort and prestige of her own marriage, Sylvia has become a workaholic magazine editor. She's trying to establish a thinking-woman's fashion rag; no wonder she cracks. Sylvia temporarily wrecks her friendship with Mary under strictly professional pressures.

Debra Messing is all blobby emotion as an always-pregnant artist friend. The group chemistry is designed to be Sex and the City sans sex. It was already insufferable (at least to me) in the original to have Mary learn successive lessons about loving her man sexually despite the strains of motherhood and fighting for him with claws when necessary. (The women in the original The Women don't balk at cattiness; they embrace it.)

The women's blow-ups now are about balancing the demands of public and private life: career, family and friendship. This changes the material so drastically you wonder why English latched on to the play in the first place.

To redo The Women with gusto, instead of changing negative stereotypes to positive ones, English might have come up with new negatives - for women and men, too. Whom do we meet more often these days - a woman with claws out or a self-regarding, instinctively cunning post-feminist devoted to her own precious sensibility? A grasping businesswoman or a passive-aggressive, neurasthenic New Woman who has learned to get what she wants without display? And, as far as the other gender goes, do we meet a succession of gullible, seducible good husbands? Or do we stumble on insufferable Peter Pans or men who embody the Sensitive Male in bad faith?

Even in the heyday of Murphy Brown (Candice Bergen makes a painful guest appearance here as Mary Haines' mom), I always thought English's talent was not for creating a distinctive comic world but for adroitly surfing the second wave of feminism. The Dan Quayle single-mom controversy was the best thing to happen to that series. This Women doesn't take place in reality or even in a glamorous urban fantasyland. It's strictly TV Land.

The Women

(Picturehouse) Starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith. Directed by Diane English. Rated PG-13 for sex-related material, language, some drug use and smoking. Time 114 minutes.

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