"If you don't get it, don't make it."

The Women

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            “The Women” offers convincing proof that Hollywood is incompetent when it comes to portraying contemporary New York women. If you don’t get it, don’t make it. Clare Booth Luce’s savage play slid perfectly into the screenplay written by Anita Loos and directed by George Cukor in 1939. Luce, Loos, and Cukor understood the nature of the Manhattan social competition of the ‘30s; they would have understood it today. Diane English does not.

            In trying to remake the movie in present day terms, English has resorted to the outdated premise that idleness equals boredom equals gossip. In today’s New York, the players are rarely idle or bored. In the ‘30s, when their power derived only from their men, they lunched and went to Reno for their divorces. Today they can be found saving Central Park or the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan, painting, writing, or running a business.

            So who is cast as the sophisticated wronged wife of an errant businessman? Meg Ryan. I bow to no one in my admiration for Meg Ryan’s abilities as a queen of light comedy. But she is neither sophisticated nor even slightly credible as a New Yorker.

            Annette Bening, on the other hand, could easily play a Manhattan power executive but here she is in the impossible position of delivering lines that are both strained and labored. Bening plays Sylvie, a women’s magazine editor under threat of being fired by her male boss. She has for years been the closest friend of Mary (Meg Ryan) whose stockbroker husband is having an affair with Crystal (Eva Mendes), the counter girl in the perfume section at Saks.

            The movie is a revolving door of the politics of friendship. Candice Bergen, as Mary’s mother, manages, alone among them all, not to look silly. Annette Bening is reduced to being one of many ordinary characters. Since there is nothing ordinary about Ms. Bening, her performance becomes embarrassing. This entire crew of fine middle-aged actresses is diminished by this genuine bust of a movie. As we watch things slide downhill, we tend to remember other roles that brought these actors to the top - Meg Ryan becoming an instant legend as she faked it so spectacularly in the deli booth, Annette Bening in “Being Julia,” Candice Bergen as the star of Diane English’s hit TV comedy “Murphy Brown.” The blame for this failure must be laid at the feet of Ms. English who is apparently responsible both for the script and the direction. Perhaps she just isn’t mean enough for this job.

            The real meat of a movie like this lies in the edgy intelligence of actors bent to gossipy cruelty, not in a group of middle-aged actors behaving like high schoolers in the hall at lunch break. Clare Booth Luce and Anita Loos understood cruel competition; they dipped their pens in acid to paint portraits of women who used words as weapons. It’s that verbal warfare that we miss.

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