Critics and film fans often tsk and tut when a studio fast-tracks a picture in an effort to shove something out while the iron is hot, but even if you give a film all the development time in the world — like, say, over a decade — that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a success. Witness Diane English’s remake of The Women, which emerged from an interminable series of delays this year, only to be pelted with horrible reviews and box office indifference. At 13 percent on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, The Women was one of the worst films of the year.
Or was it?
English’s take on The Women wasn’t a film I ever planned on seeing — although I think Clare Booth Luce’s play is gut-bustingly funny, I’ve never been a big fan of George Cukor’s 1939 adaptation, and anyway, even under the best of circumstances, it’s probably not a good idea to make your directorial debut with a huge cast of famous names like Annette Bening, Meg Ryan, and Eva Mendes. And after reading some of the reviews (“A chick flick that’s the very reason why guys hate them” — Austin Kennedy, Sin Magazine), I went into The Women expecting something punishingly awful.
The first thing that needs to be said, then, is that The Women is probably not as bad as you’ve been led to believe. It’s neither as funny nor as profound as it thinks it is, and English’s direction is spectacularly unsuited to the material, but it isn’t a movie that’s particularly difficult to watch — which isn’t really all that surprising, given the amount of talent English had assembled before her cameras, including Cloris Leachman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Debra Messing, Bette Midler, Carrie Fisher, and seemingly every moderately well-known actress in Hollywood stopping by for a cameo. (Even Ana Gasteyer shows up.) Judging from what Bening, Ryan, and Smith have to say in the bonus featurettes, most of The Women‘s stars signed on mainly because Hollywood never makes movies this female-focused — no males are ever seen onscreen — which is doubly depressing when you consider its paltry $26 million gross. As English notes, making a movie with this cast shouldn’t be a huge deal, but it is — and now that The Women has tanked, it’ll probably be another decade and change before someone tries to do it again.
English drew a lot of criticism for changing the tone of the original script, moving away from Luce and Cukor’s caustic take on female relationships and swapping in strong friendships for catty repartee, but that isn’t really The Women‘s main problem. English says in one of the bonus reels that women’s relationships have evolved since the male-dominated bitchfests that were depicted in the original, and she’s right; unfortunately, they’ve also evolved from the tearstained shopping dates that make up the bulk of this version — and furthermore, very few men or women can identify with the palatial mansions, gallery openings, and weekend fundraisers that English’s characters enjoy. In style and tone, these Women are deeply rooted in the fantastical ’80s, when film protagonists with no discernible source of income lived in enormous, beautifully furnished apartments and had time to while away workdays gabbing in coffee shops and department stores.
The anachronisms don’t end there, either — there really isn’t a line anywhere in this movie’s 114-minute running time that you haven’t heard before. And when English tries to insert “real woman”-friendly themes, such as the subplot that sees Bening’s magazine editor trying to explain to Ryan’s preteen daughter that cover models don’t look like their photos in real life, it feels awkwardly pasted on. (Not to mention that English proceeds to undermine herself with the movie’s climactic fashion show, which features models as impossibly beautiful as any seen on the cover of Vogue…and includes a shot of that very same preteen girl sporting an ear-to-ear grin.)
Most movies that try to tackle “women’s themes” wind up muddled, though, and if that was The Women‘s biggest flaw, it would probably still be a better movie than it is. What ultimately knocks it down to slow-night-on-the-Netflix-queue status is English herself — her direction is as broad and hammy as a Very Special Episode of Murphy Brown. Her vision for the material is summed up with one godawful shot near the end, when a baby is slowly handed to its mother against the backdrop of cloud-patterned wallpaper — it’s supposed to mean something, to tug at the heartstrings, but instead it provokes involuntary laughter. You can almost hear the studio audience cooing.
Still, for all its flaws, The Women does contain some eminently watchable performances — Bening is as dependable as ever, Ryan’s acting is almost enough to distract you from her silly new lips, and Messing and Pinkett Smith, though wasted, manage to get off some of the movie’s best lines. It certainly isn’t worth owning, but it might deserve a rental, and if you end up catching it on the cable dial at some point, you don’t need to hate yourself for putting down the remote and watching it all the way through, if only for the opportunity to think about how much better it could have — and should have — been.