'The Women': Shtick and the City

Salt Lake City Weekly | September 8, 2008
Oh, the bitter ironies of Hollywood. Fourteen years ago, writer Diane English (Murphy Brown) and Meg Ryan started developing a remake of George Cukor’s 1939 film The Women, but Warner Bros.—parent company of the project’s eventual home, Picturehouse—kept balking at the price. “Women don’t buy tickets,” went the reasoning, and when the film was finally made, it was for $16 million, around one-fourth of the original budget. When Warners announced in May that Picturehouse would be shuttered, with The Women its final release, it appeared that the long-delayed project would be dumped without fanfare—except that, also in May, Sex and the City opened to more than $50 million. And suddenly, The Women was deserving of a promotional push to all those women who don’t buy tickets.

You’ll see plenty of marketing looking for connections between The Women and Sex and the City—the Gotham locations; the fabulous clothes and accessories; the hug-filled moments of distaff camaraderie. But whatever one’s thoughts on the artistic merits of the Sex and the City movie, it came with a built-in level of character depth. The Women offers nothing but glossy surface and wisecracks; it’s more of a trite sit-com than Sex and the City ever was.

And it’s hard not to view the four main characters here in terms of their SATC counterparts. Mary Haines (Ryan)—whose difficulty balancing motherhood, career and charity functions is complicated even further when she finds out her husband is having an affair—fills Carrie’s “blonde neurotic” slot. Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening)—who’s trying to turn the fashion magazine she edits into something more empowering—plays the Samantha-esque tough-talking career woman. Edie (Debra Messing)—working on baby number five—offers Charlotte’s perkiness. And lesbian author Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith) gets to deliver the surly Miranda-isms.

The Women’s notable gimmick is that the characters exist in a world where a male is never seen or heard. Though male characters—husbands, lovers, bosses—exist as plot points, they never appear on screen, not even in bustling Manhattan street scenes or as restaurant patrons; even the pets and kids are all female. It’s as though the entire eastern seaboard were reproducing through some strange process of estro-genesis.

As it plays out, however, the gimmick is merely that: a cutesy affectation that fits in with an overarching sensibility that never seeks insight. Mary’s plight—and her marital woes and subsequent personal re-awakening take by far the bulk of the running time—unfolds in abstraction, in part because her confrontations with men take place in off-screen space. When Mary faces off with her husband over his philandering, we’re not allowed to see it; it becomes a humorously-related second-hand report from the household staff. Over and over again, English proves more interested in a gag than in getting to the heart of her characters.

Perhaps that might not have mattered as much, had the gags at least been funnier. But The Women wallows in the most mundane stereotypes possible, attempting to make zinger punch-lines out of the fact that men—get this!—fart and monopolize the TV remote. Perhaps not surprisingly, the cast members who actually have sit-com experience seem most comfortable with the material: Messing makes the most of her moments, Cloris Leachman scores as Mary’s no-nonsense housekeeper, and Candice Bergen (English’s Murphy Brown star, as Mary’s mother) still has great timing with so-so material. When the humor works, it’s usually because someone knows how to under-play the rim-shot shtick—as opposed to Bette Midler, whose cameo as a brassy talent agent might as well come with a highball glass, a cigar and a Catskills audience.

Plenty of Sex and the City nay-sayers have expressed similar resistance to quippy banter, self-absorbed protagonists and an over-emphasis on designer labels. In both the series and the movie, though, Sex and the City at least built context into the characters’ personal travails; a decade of history made the plot developments matter. Here, when one character drops a late bombshell about a personal failing, it comes off as pointless and irrelevant, since we hardly knew anything about her in the first place. The women of The Women exist in a jokey world without men, but also without depth.


** (two out of four stars)

Starring: Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Debra Messing.

Written and directed by Diane English.

Rated PG-13.

Salt Lake City Weekly

Having carved a large niche of young, affluent, and educated Utahns, Salt Lake City Weekly is regarded as a welcome, independent voice in an area that truly needs one. More than 1,600 outlets distribute Salt Lake City Weekly in the...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 248 South Main, Salt Lake City, UT 84101
  • Phone: (801) 575-7003