Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sappy Sitcom

The Women
Written and directed by Diane English
Starring Annette Bening, Meg Ryan, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Bette Midler, Candice Bergen, Cloris Leachman, Carrie Fisher
Opens September 12, 2008

Ryan and Bening in The Women
Claire Booth Luce’s witty if dated play The Women became an even wittier movie by George Cukor in 1939, starring a gaggle of great actresses like Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. Now that it’s 2008, writer-director Diane English has decided that a modernization of this material was necessary for 21st century audiences, but her version of The Women doesn’t hold a candle to the earlier incarnations.

Mary (Meg Ryan), a busy wife and mother who gave up her dreams of fashion design to raise a family, discovers that her husband is cheating on her with Crystal, a hot Saks perfume girl (Eva Mendes). Circling the wagons are her best friends Sylvie (Annette Bening), a hotshot women’s magazine editor; Edie (Debra messing), ultra-fertile mom and Sylvie’s sister; and Alex (Jada Pinkett-Smith), a wisecracking lesbian.

Although these charming actresses are game, their writer-director lets them down with by-the-numbers, sitcom-type humor and the kind of half-baked melodrama that would seem cheesy on the Lifetime or Oxygen networks. It’s impossible, at this late date, to fall into fits of laughter or cry tears of sympathy over such cliched, underwritten characters. Bening’s caricature of a hard-nosed editor is a rare false-note portrayal by this immensely gifted actress: you sense that even Bening herself can’t work up much enthusiasm over the slight material or the cardboard cutout she’s been reduced to playing.

None of the other leads gets to make much of an impression either. Ryan is always cute and cuddly, even if the role doesn’t call for it–but here, even a light comic touch doesn’t help, thanks to English’s trite writing and derivative directing. Pinkett-Smith brings a small touch of sass to the proceedings, Mendes only has to look absolutely gorgeous, and Messing can only show glimmers of the feisty comic flair she showed on Will & Grace.

It’s up to the supporting cast to provide some fun in their equally underwritten parts. Candice Bergen is uproarious as Mary’s mother, undergoing still another facelift as she exhorts her daughter to break free from her marital chains. In her single scene, Bette Midler provides some chuckles as a multi-divorcee at a retreat Mary’s attending, and Cloris Leachman actually underplays Mary’s housekeeper, through which she gets the movie’s biggest laughs.

The movie’s sappy ending–which takes place in the maternity ward as Edie gives birth yet again–gives us our only glimpse of a male in the entire cast. (This gimmick was also seen in the earlier play and movie of The Women.) Unlike the Sex and the City movie–which at least had the sense to show men-women relationships on their own terms--the new The Women is unable to muster much enthusiasm over its own instantly dated glimpse at the battle of the sexes.

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