They just don’t remake ’em like they used to.
As if we needed another reminder of that sad fact, along comes "The Women" to demonstrate that many people who remake movies do so without ever understanding what made the originals memorable.
Those who’ve never seen 1939’s original "The Women" (based on Clare Booth Luce’s 1936 play) will, of course, have no basis for comparison. But you don’t need to compare to realize there’s nothing particularly memorable about the 21st-century version.
To be fair, when writer-director Diane English — whose claim to fame remains "Murphy Brown," the sitcom classic she created — first wanted to remake "The Women," it was the 20th century, and it was supposed to star Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan.
English and Ryan deserve credit for their perseverance. More than a decade later, "The Women" skips into the theaters. Or, rather, it should skip; too often, it teeters on its stiletto heels, unsure of its footing — and its reason for being.
Back in 1939, "The Women" knew its place and so did the Depression-weary audiences watching it. They were there to watch snooty society types get their comeuppance when adultery reared its ugly head, interrupting their complacent, pampered lives.
The irony was that, in 1939, the women who played "The Women" — notably Norma Shearer as wronged wife Mary Haines and Joan Crawford as her nemesis, scheming perfume-counter siren Crystal Allen — were as powerful and popular as any of their male Hollywood counterparts.
Almost 70 years later, women have many options in real life besides marriage and motherhood. Yet their Hollywood clout is so diminished that studio chiefs (inevitably male) seem astonished every time a so-called "chick flick" demonstrates the genre’s box-office clout.
Audiences who made the movie version of "Sex and the City" a hit will find familiar elements in "The Women," from you-go-girl sisterly bonding to lots (and lots) of yupscale fashion frenzy. (The movie’s main characters make pilgrimages to Saks Fifth Avenue the way true believers journey to sacred shrines.)
But writer-director English follows the original’s basic premise and plotting, as almost perfect Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) — wife, mother, fashion designer — keeps the multiple plates of her life spinning with throwaway ease. (Only her curly hair offers an irrefutable clue to her frazzled life.)
Good thing her good friends have her back. Brisk editor Sylvie Fowler (Annette Bening), desperately trying to save her magazine (and her job), still has time to dish with Mary and their mutual friends Edie (Debra Messing) and Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith). Edie’s a perpetually pregnant earth mother who hopes her next baby will be a boy, so she can stop eating for two already. Alex produces books, not babies — and, as a card-carrying lesbian, she has no use for boys. Or men.
After all, look what Mary’s husband has done: He went to Saks to buy his wife expensive perfume and wound up with sultry perfume spritzer Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes) instead.
Their affair throws Mary, Mary’s friends and Mary’s household — including daughter Molly (India Ennenga) and housekeeper Maggie (Cloris Leachman, still stealing scenes) — into a collective tizzy.
Mary’s seen-it-before mother (Murphy Brown herself, classy deadpan Candice Bergen) advises selfless forgiveness. A fellow guest at a yoga retreat (Caesars Palace headliner Bette Midler) advises selfish vengeance.
So what’s a woman to do? In "The Women," nothing remotely unexpected. Even worse, nothing remotely enlightening or insightful.
That’s because English has completely missed the original movie’s most distinctive element: its wicked wit. As a result, she’s transformed "The Women" from a catty blast into a declawed exercise in smug self-entitlement.
Oh, it’s sporadically diverting to watch Ryan struggling to revive that America’s-sweetheart mojo after all these years.
And it’s fun to contemplate what Bening could have done with Sylvie (a smilingly tireless gossip girl as played by the original’s peerless Rosalind Russell) if only English hadn’t defanged her. Mendes makes an ornamental but blank mannequin — the opposite of Crawford’s calculating, upwardly mobile shopgirl. As for the dependably zany Messing and the ferocious Pinkett Smith, neither’s around enough to make much of an impact.
In part, that’s because English treats "The Women" too much like a sitcom and not enough like a movie. Beyond her draggy pacing and prosaic visual style, English seems to think it’s enough to round up a bunch of characters and keep them talking.
That only works when the characters are appealing and they’ve got something to say. (Murphy Brown and Co. were never at a loss for words — but we only had to listen to them bicker and banter for a half-hour at a time.)
The women of "The Women," however, wear out their welcome long before Ryan straightens out her hair — and her life.
Contact movie critic Carol Cling at email@example.com or 702-383-0272.REVIEW movie: "The Women" running time: 114 minutes rating: PG-13; sexual references, profanity, drug use, brief smoking verdict: C now playing: multiple locations DEJA VIEW Fabulous females dominate these ensemble comedies and dramas: "Stage Door" (1937) — In this Oscar-nominated delight, aspiring actresses (led by Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball and Ann Miller) share rooms, and dreams, at a theatrical boarding house. "The Women" (1939) — Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell lead the all-star team in director George Cukor’s classic comedy of Manhattan society wives — and their Reno divorces. "The Group" (1966) — In the ’30s, eight friends (including Joan Hackett, Elizabeth Hartman, Shirley Knight, Joanna Pettet, Jessica Walter and newcomer Candice Bergen) face life in the ’30s after graduating from a prestigious women’s college. "Steel Magnolias" (1989) — A Louisiana beauty parlor provides the backdrop for Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts to share tears and laughter. "Casa de los Babys" (2003) — Six Americans (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden, Susan Lynch, Daryl Hannah, Mary Steenburgen and Lili Taylor) wait to adopt Latin American babies in this drama from writer-director John Sayles. — By CAROL CLING