‘The Women’: The First Wives and the City Wait To Exhale

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The New York Sun

Barely four months after “Sex and the City” landed on the big screen, another film celebrating the bond between four female friends living in and around New York City arrives this weekend.

“The Women” is director Diane English’s adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce’s play of the same title, which opened on Broadway in 1936; three years after that, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell were among the silver-screen legends to star in a film version. The 1939 film, directed by George Cukor, centers on housewife Mary Haines (Shearer) and several of her pampered peers. Mary is the picture of domestic bliss until she discovers, thanks to a loose-lipped manicurist, that her husband is having an affair with a department store salesgirl.

Ms. English, the producer behind the Emmy-winning television milestone “Murphy Brown,” stays true to the premise of the 1939 film. But she does bring Mary (Meg Ryan) and her social circle –not to mention her manicurist — to present-day New York and gives three of the four protagonists glamorous-sounding careers, with which they are uniformly unhappy. Mary, a multitasking mother, designs clothes; Sylvie (Annette Bening), a no-nonsense career woman, edits a glossy women’s magazine; Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith), a lesbian with a penchant for supermodels, has written a best-selling book. Earth-mother Edie (Debra Messing), pregnant with her fifth child, rounds out the tight-knit quartet.

News of Mary’s philandering husband causes her friends to spy on and, ultimately, to confront the other woman, a leggy beauty named Crystal (Eva Mendes) who works behind the perfume counter at Saks Fifth Avenue. Crystal proves to be as indiscreet as she is unapologetic. Mary, meanwhile, refrains from confronting her wayward spouse: She heeds her patrician mother’s advice to look the other way because “there’s nothing like a heavy dose of a man’s mistress to make him miss his wife.” But when the humiliation becomes more than Mary can bear, she insists that her hedge-fund millionaire husband move out of their suburban Connecticut manse.

Mary’s marriage seems beyond repair and, after she is fired from the family fashion business that she had expected to take over, so does her career (like Ms. Ryan’s, at this point). As if that weren’t enough, she suffers another devastating betrayal, involving a story that appears in the New York Post’s Page Six gossip column.

Mary, the hardworking mother renowned for catering her own garden parties, devolves into a basket case. She whittles away her days, lounging in her pajamas, watching daytime talk shows, and snacking on junk food. In one scene, to the dismay of her acerbic housekeeper (Cloris Leachman), she downs a stick of butter dipped in cocoa and milk.

It is only with a healthy dose of moxie, some from an eccentric Hollywood agent (Bette Midler) whom she meets at a wellness retreat, and more than a little help from her closest friends, that Mary begins to extricate herself from the depths of despair. Slowly, she begins to repair the many broken relationships in her life, including the one with her rebellious preteen daughter (India Ennenga).

Mary’s triumphant rejuvenation treads terrain familiar to the chick-flick genre and, more specifically, to the sisterhood-is-powerful subgenre that includes the “Sex and the City” movie, “The First Wives Club” (1996), and “Waiting to Exhale” (1995).

Like the 1939 version of the film, Ms. English’s “The Women” employs a wildly talented all-female ensemble cast. By my observation, not a single man appears on-screen during the entire 114-minute movie (nor does one appear in Cukor’s film). Yet the casting misses the mark: The actresses who play the four central characters range in age from 36 to 50, yet they are portrayed as contemporaries. Mary and Sylvie seem slightly too far over the hill to be talking (or cracking jokes) about imminent pregnancy. Meanwhile, Mary’s mother (Candice Bergen), would be far more believable as her older sister.

“The Women” has moments of comic relief, and more than a few witticisms ably delivered — most often by Ms. Bergen. In one scene, she tells her daughter, “I know you don’t drink in the afternoon. But you will eventually, so why not just start now?”; In another, she wonders aloud, “At what age do women start covering themselves with tarps just to take a walk on the beach?”

But the periodic injections of humor don’t make up for exaggerated, inauthentic characters and a meandering script. “The Women” resembles something much closer to an extended episode of “The View” — that is, a whiny, catty, and unyielding spectacle — than to its 1939 forebear, or even to more compelling female-friendship films, such as “Sex and the City. “


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