Nobody rocks an entrance quite like Eva Mendes. In a blue clingy dress that accentuates every curve, with flawless skin and salon perfect hair that flips with each step forward in her runway-like walk, the addition of the color Jungle Red mixed by manicurist Tanya (Debi Mazur) to her fingernails seems superfluous.
Yet, it’s precisely this off-screen decision for a manicure by the talkative Saks employee that sets the events in motion for the perfume-spritzer girl turned husband-stealing mistress Crystal Allen (Mendes) in writer/director/producer Diane English’s feature filmmaking debut, The Women. This is especially crucial since it’s only a matter of time before Mazur’s character spills the beans about Crystal’s dalliances to every client seated opposite her and sure enough as the film begins, magazine editing workaholic Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening), the best friend of the unfaithful man’s wife, Mary Haines (Meg Ryan), learns about the indiscretion.
Although she tries to lock it in the vault, she finds it’s too much to bear alone, later revealing the same news to their perpetually pregnant, hippie artist mutual friend, Edie (Debra Messing) and later, their tough-minded lesbian scribe pal Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith). While it’s Alex who makes the decision to “drag her ass into the vault,” and approach Mary directly, the friends discover to their horror that not only does the saintly, multitasking mother and wife Mary know but, upon questionable advice from her own mother (Candice Bergen), has decided — for the time being — not to confront her husband. Although initially Mary had laughed off her mother’s suggestion with the telling in-joke, “What is this — a 1930s movie?” soon we realize, that while it is based on one, English’s version is anything but old-fashioned.
Adapted from the 1936 Clare Boothe Luce play which was immortalized by director George Cukor with his classically catty 1939 film of the same name, it took fourteen laborious years for Murphy Brown creator Diane English’s vision of a much-needed update to the tale to make it to the big screen with a figurative revolving door of a Who’s Who of A-List stars all having been attached at one point or another. Yet it was actress Meg Ryan who believed in English from the beginning. She bravely stuck by the aspiring filmmaker through each and every shakeup whether it was in front of the screen or behind it (as slated director James L. Brooks had to move on), “attached from day one” to play the “wronged wife,” according to Entertainment Weekly’s Missy Schwartz.
And indeed, Ryan is quite good as the betrayed wife, especially when she gets to deliver some wonderfully penned lines by English such as, “How could I not have known — three months ago he bought cowboy boots?” However, her character still seems to suffer from the weakness of the original, even as English gives her a complete three act structure and character arc where Mary finally learns to start both doing things for herself and gains greater confidence as a woman and working professional.
And while it seems highly doubtful that this foursome would ever be friends in real life and Pinkett and Messing seem sidelined for a majority of the overly long running time (despite a killer scene where Messing scolds Mendes as though she were a petulant child), it’s Annette Bening who manages to capture our attention from the start. Bening, who “had never been a fan of the catty, sexist undertones of the original play,” was grateful that English’s screenplay instead focused entirely on “female friendship,” and her appreciation shines through in one of her best performances alongside her Oscar-nominated turns in American Beauty and Being Julia.
Rebounding off of a terribly sexist and ill-conceived beginning (which drew critical groans and eye-rolls from this reviewer) as the camera cuts to a mental image of her character sizing up the products and shoppers in Saks as if she were viewing everything from a Mission Impossible or Terminator 2 like computer screen, it’s Bening’s Sylvia who has the most depth. Further, she seems the most authentic as she struggles with sexism and ageism in the publishing industry, faces the fears of growing old alone, and forms an unlikely bond with Mary’s largely ignored adolescent and rebellious daughter Molly (India Ennenga).
Much like the original, there are no men featured onscreen in the film, yet as English shared with Missy Schwartz, “because the original had a lot of old-fashioned ideas about women’s place in society, I thought, okay, there’s a reason to remake it,” and those who are expecting a catfight, especially given some of the jokes from the trailer, will be sorely disappointed by her mature approach.
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In fact, maturity is the key word that’s striking fear in the hearts of executives who, during fourteen years of denial that an entirely female based film could boast impressive ticket sales, as Schwartz noted, were not only displeased with the original cut seen earlier in the year but also worried that “the mature cast won’t help attract the much-coveted Facebook generation.” Still, after the huge success of both Sex and the City: The Movie and Mamma Mia! there’s reason for not just execs but fans as well to be optimistic as unlike the disappointing SATC Movie which relegated our brainy, flirtatious Carrie to reenacting Cinderella with Mr. Big and Mamma was one of the biggest critical bombs of the summer, this is a film that actually respects the intelligence of both its female and male audience members.
And it can’t come soon enough after the contemplative art house August release of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the poorly timed debut of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 opposite the Olympics as both have begun trickling out of theatres in preparation for Oscar season. Especially since — despite Diablo Cody’s ridiculously Tiger Beat-styled raves of Playboy in her EW column, (which in light of other mushy love letters regarding New Kids on the Block, Full House, etc. are really starting to make one think twice about the stripper turned Juno Oscar winner) — the infantile and Cody-endorsed House Bunny was darn near the only movie offered to women over the past few weeks in major release.
And while of course The Women is formulaic and at the end of the day, we probably don’t need another film about career and marital woes, as far as other major studio releases go, it’s a far greater improvement over Bunny, SATC, and Mamma Mia! So in the words of Diane English as quoted in Entertainment Weekly, this time around, ladies, “You can’t complain that there’s nothing to see! When a movie comes out that’s for you, you’ve got to go vote with your wallet.” However, in order to avoid the wrath of Bening’s Sylvia, you may want to make sure your wallet comes from Saks and that your nails are Jungle Red.