Bad Makeover

sarris2 3 Bad MakeoverThe Women
Running time 114 minutes
Written and
directed by Diane English
Starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing

Diane English’s The Women, from her own screenplay, is supposedly based on George Cukor’s 1939 adaptation by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin of Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 Broadway play. Both the 1936 play and the 1939 movie were funny in a bitchy, misogynist way. Luce was said to have loathed New York society women, and enjoyed ridiculing their fetishes and foibles. Ms. English’s strongly feminist take on the material divests the comedy of all its humor. Actually, Ms. English’s new version of the 1930s artifact has more in common with the warmly womanly wiles of Sex and the City than with the acid wit of the original version of The Women. Indeed, one wonders why Ms. English chose to depict this particular narrative of conjugal love betrayed at least momentarily as almost a tragedy for a woman when divorce is so much more common today on and off the screen than it was 60 years ago.

The casting of Meg Ryan in the original Norma Shearer role of the aggrieved wife, Mary Haines, is not especially outrageous in itself. But whereas Shearer’s character never worked a day in her life, Ms. Ryan’s character maintains a part-time career as a designer for her father’s clothing store. (This in addition to such perks as a beautiful home in Connecticut, an adorable 12-year-old daughter, and a Wall Street titan of a husband). Still, the biggest change from the original is the casting of Annette Bening as Mary’s best friend, Sylvie Fowler. In that role, Rosalind Russell was a scathing delight as a shameless gossip and a farcical provocateur. She is certainly no friend of Mary’s.

Ms. Bening’s Sylvie, unlike her jobless predecessor, is the high-powered editor of a celebrity magazine, and is forced to betray Mary to save her own job by placating a valued contributor to the magazine. The contributor’s speciality is all the dirt on Wall Street marriages. Not to worry, Mary and Sylvie eventually make up and Mary regains her husband, who gets over Eva Mendes’ Crystal Allen, the department store’s perfume spritzer girl. Ms. Mendes is too transparently vampish to be as magical as Joan Crawford was in that role in the original.

Ms. English has her feminist heart in the right place, and she mixes races and sexual predilections to populate Mary and Sylvie’s circle with possibilities that the lily-white straight damsels of the movie ’30s never imagined existed.

This contemporary broad-mindedness is admirable, but not sufficient to compensate for the lack of comic friction. This is to say that as much as I enjoy current actresses like Ms. Bening and Ms. Ryan even in a lost cause, I cannot recommend the latest reenactment of The Women as anything special.

asarris@observer.com