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Now this is a rare movie season indeed. Two films with star-studded casts almost completely people by women. “Mama Mia” has managed to confound men with its saccharine affirmations and charm women with its heart-on-the-sleeve dedication to summer fun. I would argue that the women who made it are just fine with that. For a bonus, Diane English serves us up her loose remake of 1939’s “The Women” – one of the funniest, sharpest films ever – never mind that there’s not a single man in it.
You got it. But after attending thousands of female-less Westerns, shoot-‘em-ups and war films with our men friends and mates, I think you’d agree we deserve the break. After all, the vaunted ‘great age of independent film’ from the 1970s is also famous for what it’s missing: women. A crime of epic proportions when you consider the women available – riches like Cloris Leachman and Bette Midler who shone whenever cast – but at a tiny fraction of their male peers.
And here we are lucky. English found them – and many other modern marvels – and let them shine in this all-female playground. Not a goofy, over-the-top, feel-good schoolyard like “Mamma Mia.” Not by a long-shot. Still, it’s going to be hard to convince a man to walk into an all-female film, a huge risk for a studio. If you manage it, though, I’m willing to bet he’ll have a pretty good time – even if it doesn’t move him like “Generation Kill.”
No, it’s not perfect. While no film could hope to compete with Anita Loos and Clare Luce Booth’s original dialogue – witty as Wilde, with more gravity, I would argue – this one drops the ball completely several times. The gorgeous, witty Bergen could have used much better material than her bland monologue about being cheated on: “It feels like you’ve been kicked in the stomach.” Not really? And disappointing mostly because English delivers much better lines elsewhere. For instance, Bergen dazzles later as she admits her happiness for her daughter’s success is mixed with “jealousy, envy, maybe a little competition.” THAT we believe.
I knew going in that watching Meg Ryan’s (Mary Haines) face not move would distract me, maybe prevent me altogether from enjoying the film – especially as it’s set in the rarified, plastic surgery-heavy world of moneyed New York – a heavy source of the film’s jokes. But Ryan’s appearance ‘improvement’ isn’t the only monkey on her back. The distance Ryan’s been keeping from her audience is still evident here; the gorgeous vulnerability she invited us into in “French Kiss,” “Sleepless” and even snippets of the otherwise angry “Addicted to Love” doesn’t seem to be coming back full-scale anytime soon. Her only full-on crying scene – alone with best friend Annette Benning (Sylvia Fowler) – on her couch is filmed in a wide-shot from the lawn, camera looking into the inner sanctum, but not allowed inside. But Ryan sucker-punched me when she fought back real tears as Sylvia announces over drinks that she’s helped evil gossip Post columnist Carrie Fisher publish sordid details of the failing marriage (in a vain attempt to save Sylvia’s job). “This is so much worse” than her husband’s betrayal, Meg says, and we know she believes it. What woman wouldn’t feel that way? And presto, Meg Ryan inhabits the Everywoman skin again. Ryan’s cheeks might not emote any more, but her eyes – at that moment – were all she needed. Not her most engaging performance ever – but certainly the most of her last handful of films.
In contrast, Annette Benning’s opening retort to a saleswoman offering ‘face lift in a jar’ kills: “This is my face. Deal with it.” I can’t claim to know about Benning’s personal grooming or surgery habits, but she doesn’t seem shy about her modest wrinkles – and instantly we buy that this is an honest, direct person. Per usual, the best friend character contains the richest contradictions and inner conflict – an old specialty of Benning’s – most gloriously displayed in “Valmont” – the smaller budget, Milos Foreman take on “Dangerous Liaisons.” There, Benning crafted a more vulnerable killer than Glenn Close was allowed, and here she picks up that subtlety again. We can see her terror flicker across her face as her boss threatens to fire her over the phone at the beginning of the film, but her voice remains steady. An hour plus later, she’s still dealing out the confident dialogue in face of the same threat, but her voice cracks, her shoulders sag, and her face shows nothing but defeat. A nuanced performance and more penetrating characterization by English than the similar “Sex in the City” mold.
“The Women” never was about Mary Haines’s love story; its real question was: how do you cope with its breakdown? Who helps you through the wrenching betrayals in life? Who can you trust? Is there anything a woman can count on? What the modern version might be missing in clever dialogue (gorgeous in the 1939 film and sparingly sampled here), it replaces with emotional honesty. Poor old Norma Shearer was surrounded by self-centered wits and a mother more than willing to sacrifice her daughter to the double standard. She relied emotionally on one person: her daughter. This Mary Haines needs her best friend, period. When that relationship falls apart, she does not substitute her emotionally unprepared daughter. In fact, she abandons her, consumed by her own despair. Not perfect. Not admirable. But if you’ve ever been around a divorce, realistic.
And so it comes as no surprise that the most emotionally satisfying scene in the film is Benning and Ryan’s reconciliation – a shouting match of contradictions. “You’ve failed your daughter” accuses Benning. “I can’t figure out how you could betray your closest friend for a job,” counters Ryan. Benning throws fruit. Ryan insults Benning’s wardrobe. But they can’t stay mad. They exhaust each other, and once they sit to catch their breath together, we know it’s going to be alright. That’s love in action – forgiveness – and the core of the movie.
Other critics are writing about this version’s not living up to the original – incidentally, one of my favorite films. And of course nothing could replace it. But English wisely here isn’t trying to. She’s updating the issues modern American women are dealing with, how they’re coping, and most importantly, adding the missing emotional core. Gone is that awful sell-out ending, Mary Haines’s justification for forgiving her husband: “Pride is something a woman in love can’t afford” – something I think we can all be thankful for. Kept in: strong women with wildly differing and entertaining takes on life and love. Bette Midler’s hysterical, pot-smoking talent agent advises, “Be selfish,” while Debra Messing’s goofy housewife begs Mary to show human kindness. Messing also performs one of the most entertaining simulated births I’ve ever seen on camera. And Jada Pinkett Smith steals her every scene with her lesbian writer’s obsessions – cynicism, sensuality and caffeine. And hey, thanks to Haines’s professional turnaround, we still get a fashion show! (My completely unofficial time estimate puts it at roughly half an hour shorter than the original – the Technicolor umpteen-minute insert remains one of classic film’s great mysteries.)
The pacing’s a bit slow at a solid two hours, and we really feel the loss of Pinkett Smith and Messing in the middle. Debi Mazar seems uncharacteristically uncomfortable though the minor, quirky part which should have suited her perfectly, and Cloris Leachman, in a more restrained role, sometimes effuses in spite of herself – not given the room to show her range as she did so beautifully in “Spanglish.” And I doubt anyone’s rushing out to snatch up the vanilla soundtrack.
However, the movie’s original strength remains: women shown dealing with the messiness of men in their lives – how they really do it – with other women.
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