Shtick and the City: The Women is like SATC, only shallower and not as funny

The Women
Starring Meg Ryan, Eva Mendes, Annette Bening, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith
Directed by Diane English
Rated PG-13

Oh, the bitter ironies of Hollywood.

Fourteen years ago, writer Diane English (Murphy Brown) and Meg Ryan started developing a remake of George Cukor's 1939 film The Women, but Warner Bros. — parent company of the project's eventual home, Picturehouse — kept balking at the price. "Women don't buy tickets," went the reasoning, and when the film was finally made, it was for $16 million, around one-fourth of the original budget.

When Warner announced in May that Picturehouse would be shuttered, with The Women as its final release, it appeared the long-delayed project would be dumped without fanfare — except that, also in May, Sex and the City opened to more than $50 million.

Suddenly, The Women was deserving of a promotional push to all those women who don't buy tickets.

You'll see plenty of marketing that attempts to connect The Women and Sex and the City — the Gotham locations, the fabulous clothes and accessories, the hug-filled moments of distaff camaraderie. But whatever one's thoughts on the artistic merits of the Sex and the City movie, it came with a built-in level of character depth. The Women offers nothing but glossy surface and wisecracks; it's more of a trite sitcom than Sex and the City ever was.

And it's hard not to view the four main characters here in terms of their SATC counterparts. Mary Haines (Ryan) — whose difficulty balancing motherhood, career, and charity functions is complicated even further when she finds out her husband is having an affair — fills Carrie's "neurotic blonde" slot. Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening) — who's trying to turn the fashion magazine she edits into something more empowering — plays the Samantha-esque tough-talking career woman. Edie (Debra Messing) — working on baby number five — offers Charlotte's perkiness. And lesbian author Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith) gets to deliver the surly Miranda-isms.

The Women's notable gimmick is that the characters exist in a world where men are never seen or heard. Though male characters — husbands, lovers, bosses — exist as plot points, they never appear on screen, not even in bustling Manhattan street scenes or as restaurant patrons; even the pets and kids are all female. It's as though the entire Eastern seaboard were reproducing through some strange process of estro-genesis.

As it plays out, however, the gimmick is merely that: a cutesy affectation that fits in with an overarching sensibility that never seeks insight. Mary's plight — her marital woes and subsequent personal reawakening — unfolds in abstraction, in part because her confrontations with men take place in off-screen space.

When Mary faces off with her husband over his philandering, we're not allowed to see it; it becomes a humorously-related secondhand report from the household staff. Over and over again, English proves more interested in a gag than in getting to the heart of her characters.

Perhaps that might not have mattered as much, had the gags at least been funnier. But The Women wallows in the most mundane stereotypes possible, attempting to make zinger punch-lines out of the fact that men — get this! — fart and monopolize the TV remote. Perhaps not surprisingly, the cast members who actually have sitcom experience seem most comfortable with the material: Messing makes the most of her moments, Cloris Leachman scores as Mary's no-nonsense housekeeper, and Candice Bergen (English's Murphy Brown star, as Mary's mother) still has great timing with so-so material.

When the humor works, it's usually because someone knows how to underplay the rim-shot shtick — as opposed to Bette Midler, whose cameo as a brassy talent agent might as well come with a highball glass, a cigar, and a Catskills audience.

Plenty of Sex and the City naysayers have expressed similar resistance to quippy banter, self-absorbed protagonists, and an over-emphasis on designer labels. In both the series and the movie, though, Sex and the City at least built context into the characters' personal travails; a decade of history made the plot developments matter.

Here, when one character drops a late bombshell about a personal failing, it comes off as pointless and irrelevant, since we hardly knew anything about her in the first place. The women of The Women exist in a jokey world without men, but also without depth.



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