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Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008

The Women

Not-so-classic remake

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Imagine the shock: Mary is having her nails done at Saks when her babbling manicurist bumbles into a monologue on infidelity involving Crystal, the girl at the store's perfume counter, and a respected Wall Street investment broker. Before the conversation is over, Mary realizes that the broker isn't just some name from the business pages of the Times. He's Steve, her husband of 13 years.

Meg Ryan gives Mary a blank face of dismay in keeping with the glib level she maintains throughout The Women. But why pick on her? The entire project suffers from misdirection and a respectable cast that almost always seems a beat or two behind the punch line. If it had been a TV show, a laugh track would alert viewers that something funny just happened.

The Women is the contemporary chick-flick remake of George Cukor's 1939 comedy classic, which he adapted in turn from the play by Clare Booth Luce, one of the most prominent women of the day as a member of Congress and wife of a publishing magnate. Both movie versions honor Luce's idea of keeping the men offstage. It's a women's story, even if the unseen men exert a gravitational pull on their lives.

Nearly 15 years in gestation, The Women has undergone many script rewrites and casting changes since writer-director Diane English ("Murphy Brown") first thought of remaking Cukor's film. That some of Luce's original banter, which came as sharp and fast as a cat's retractable claws, remains intact is an uncomfortable reminder that the new movie could have been a biting satire instead of a confused fluff ball. As the project made its way around Hollywood, the focus on competition between women over undeserving men grew blurry: The story was softened and bloated with too many tangents, too much pop psychology and too many product placements. The women wear Prada-and Gucci and anything else with a trophy label.

"Sex and the City" happened since English conceived her remake and the new Women tries to keep pace with Sarah Jessica Parker and company. The movie begins on the crowded Manhattan streets near Park Avenue, filled with the clacking sound of women's feet gorgeously shod. The Women's core females-Mary, her gossipy best friend Sylvie (Annette Bening), the perpetually pregnant Edie (Debra Messing) and the African-American lesbian Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith)-are all affluent, privileged and connected somehow to the fashion industry. At moments, the script calls out the downside of trying to conform to the airbrushed image of mannequins and expensive consumption; at other times, shopping just seems like such fun!

As in the original, there is class warfare as well as age conflict between the socialites and Crystal, the younger shopgirl who steals Mary's man. Playing the gold digger as a Latina spitfire, Eva Mendes adds an ethnic spin to the role. Sadly, Crystal all but disappears for much of the movie as Mary contemplates parenting without Steve (but with the aid of servants), Sylvie struggles to maintain her edge in the competitive world of fashion magazines (all those younger gals angling for her job) and opportunities for a comedy of contemporary manners are largely squandered. The supporting cast includes many familiar names, among them Candice Bergen as Mary's pragmatic mother, Carrie Fisher, Cloris Leachman and the always annoying Bette Midler in her usual harridan mode. n