The remake of a 1939 film of the same name, “The Women” is about the friendships and marriages of Manhattan socialites. While the original painted them as shallow, selfish and untrustworthy, the 2008 version begins in the same vein, but partway through gets too attached to its characters and loses its satirical bite. “The Women” attempts to incorporate some un-Hollywood realism and dry humor, but these efforts clash with latter half’s chick-flick elements.
The opening scene introduces protagonist and perennial do-gooder Mary (Meg Ryan) and her best friends Sylvie (Annette Bening), Edie (Debra Messing) and Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith). Mary’s husband of 13 years, Stephen, is having an affair with the Saks “spritzer girl” (Eva Mendes), and Mary seems to be the only one who doesn’t know. At first, Mary’s friends are hesitant to tell her about her husband’s infidelity. They are less afraid of hurting her than of getting mired in a situation they might be able to avoid. By the time they do tell her, she has already heard the news from a gossipy manicurist.
Although the relationships between the female leads appear intriguingly shifty at the beginning, writer/director Diane English seems to decide partway through that they are good people. The love that the women feel for each other is taken for granted more than it is ever convincingly demonstrated, but the audience still leaves the theater feeling pleasantly reassured that it somehow does, in fact, exist.
Movies are usually more fun when the characters are likeable. These ones are, even though they aren’t particularly original. From the ambitious workaholic to the sweet-natured space-case, they are all variations on people we have encountered in movies many times before.
These clichés destroy any chance “The Women” might have had of being taken seriously, but they aren’t necessarily a bad thing in a movie whose only purpose is to entertain. If anything, the familiarity of the characters makes them more relatable.
“The Women” is enjoyable in large part because of the strong performances its cast delivers. The leads are commanding enough that the absence of men (although male characters are discussed, they never appear on screen) is barely felt.
Debra Messing gives what may be the best comic performance of the film. She brings humor into the final scene, which might otherwise have been sappy and anticlimactic.
Eva Mendes’ seductive Crystal Allen is disappointingly two-dimensional, but the actress has enough magnetic confidence to bring the film’s villain to life.
Some of the best moments are delivered by the supporting cast. Candice Bergen is scheming and sarcastic in the role of Mary’s mother, and Debi Mazar spreads scandals as Tanya, the manicurist who can’t keep a secret.
As its title suggests, “The Women” is ultimately a movie about the importance of female friendship. It doesn’t break any new ground on the subject, but it allows its audiences to spend two enjoyable hours contemplating the elements that go into any lasting relationship: love, honesty, and, when all else fails, forgiveness.