Debra Messing, Annette Bening, ...
Credit: Caudette Barius

The 1939 MGM classic The Women was the original Sex and the City. It had everything: gossip and fashion shows and spa workouts, plus a peek into the dishy manners of New York high society. Directed by George Cukor, from a script by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin (which was adapted from Claire Boothe Luce’s Broadway smash), the movie was a zinger-strewn orgy of feminine camaraderie and backbiting, yet it also confronted the timeless issue of whether a happy marriage can — and should — survive an adulterous affair. The Women wasn’t by any means a great movie, but it had a polished acid vibrance and, for all its over-the-top chatter, an elegantly simple story.

The new version, written and directed by former Murphy Brown writer-producer Diane English, sprawls all over the place, in no small part because it’s trying so hard to be a luscious retrograde fantasy and a tale of 21st-century empowerment. Meg Ryan, her hair so mega-permed it looks as if she were hiding under the world’s most expensive mop, takes the Norma Shearer role: She’s Mary Haines, a wealthy Connecticut housewife whose world collapses when she learns — from a blabby Saks Fifth Avenue manicurist (Debi Mazar) — that her husband has been sleeping with the golddigger who works at the perfume counter. (This floozy is played by Eva Mendes, sexy-vicious where Joan Crawford was sexy-psychotic.) Annette Bening, in the Rosalind Russell role of Mary’s treacherous best friend, is now a women’s magazine editor, which means that once you’ve adjusted to how badly Bening has been lit, the film can get sidetracked into one of those awesomely unconvincing inside views of how New York media supposedly work.

Meanwhile, Ryan’s Mary reacts to her predicament by experiencing a career-minded awakening (I can be a fashion designer! Because I believe in myself!), which feels like the sort of thing we watched Diane Keaton go through in bad comedies 20 years ago. Nattering around the edges are Debra Messing as a busybody and walking advertisement for the joys of child rearing, Jada Pinkett Smith as a sullen author, and Bette Midler as some weird Mae West noodge of a bat-brained divorcée. For added relevance, Mary’s daughter (India Ennenga) has been made into a compendium of up-to-the-minute girl crises. The Women is such an arduous patchwork of ”issues” it ends up a Frankenstein’s monster of a chick flick. The movie is a feminist lesson instead of what it should have been (and once was): a tough, synthetic, high-gloss entertainment that wears its heart on its lacquered fingernails. C

The Women
  • Movie
  • 114 minutes