After fifteen years in development, TV comedy queen Diane English (“Murphy Brown”) has finally completed her Magnum Opus: a star-spangled remake of 1939’s “The Women.” Sixty-nine years after that classic film’s original release, the remake of “The Women” follows in the high-heeled footsteps and huge box office wake of this summer’s earlier “Sex And The City.” The two movies are remarkably similar, sharing an unapologetic chickflick sensibility and Ladies Only appeal.
Both films claim to reflect a kind of reality and instead mirror an uppercrust New York City where money is never an issue, a New York City where walking a mile even in your own shoes is unthinkable. Shoes aren’t for walking; they’re for collecting, and they render their owners hobbled Geisha girls suited only to taking tiny baby steps on pristine boulevards, linking arms for balance, in search of more shoes and more men. Freud suggests that shoes are a symbol for female genitalia. Movies suggest they are no longer symbolic at all, but replacements. So it’s a catfight to the finish. Or wait. Could “The Women” be just a pale imitation of an imitation arriving a little too late to cash in to the zeitgeist?
Timing (and those shoes) are everything.
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Everyone in “The Women” goes to Saks! Everyone in the movie is a woman! Society woman Mary Haines discovers her husband is having an illicit affair. Her group of friends stick their noses in her business. Somebody has a baby. Nobody worries about money. They live in New York City and Connecticut, but most of the people are white and rich. We learn early on that several characters are very witty, but we never actually hear anything that convinces us of this. They change clothes a lot.
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The Defending Champion
Everyone in “Sex And The City” has lots of sex! Every woman in the movie is a gay man! Columnist Carrie Bradshaw gets left at the altar. Her group of friends stick their noses in her business. Somebody has a baby. Nobody worries about money. They live in New York City, but most of the people are white and rich. We learn early on that several characters are very witty, but we never actually hear anything that convinces us of this. They change clothes a lot.
This isn’t the first time I’ve put a couple of chickflicks in the ring together. In fact, it’s not even the first time this summer. That was just over a month ago with Sex and the City (2008) -vs- The Women (1939).
As always, I’m torn, ripping apart chickflicks. I’m usually first in line opening day to see them, voting with my dollars so studios know there’s an audience out here not composed entirely of thrillseeking adolescent boys. It’s a painful sacrifice much of the time; truly good chickflicks are few and far between. A colleague asked me to define chickflick for him. The best I could come up with was this: A chickflick is a movie with women at the center. A woman has to drag her date to a chickflick. Men go to a chickflick only as a courtesy or a favor or in return for relationship leverage or the possibility of sexual favors. No straight guy would go to a chickflick with another guy. Recently, I’ve redefined chickflick: a movie with a woman in it. Super ChickFlicks have lots of women in them; the multiplex has been flooded with them this summer, and the gamble has paid off.
Box office success is nice, but I still want them to be good. Call me crazy.
As a longtime feminist, sufficiently fortunate (or wise) to have chosen a career that does not rely on my own perpetual youth and unattainably perfect beauty, I don’t want to appear unduly catty in discussing Meg Ryan’s face. I mention it here because it concerned me deeply and consistently throughout the film’s running time. In the completely unlikely event that actresses with as-yet-unimproved faces are reading this blog, I write this with your best interests at heart.
Hollywood plastic surgeons must be stopped.
They’re endangering our pool of middle aged actresses. Meg Ryan’s new face is a Halloween mask of her old face, incapacitated and largely immobilized, incapable of registering the simplest of emotions. Dialogue had to explain her feelings for her. Now I’m sad. Now I’m angry. Now I’m happy. (Actually, to be fair, her smile was positively Joker-like, a frozen grimace altogether and alarmingly different than the impaired blank expression plaguing her throughout the rest of the almost two-hour film.) Are we audience members really so shallow that we demand our icons to remain plasticized robot versions of their young selves, frozen forever in the instant when we first fell in movie love with them? I like to think of myself as more intelligent than that. Meg Ryan is hardly alone in seeking that sad surgical fountain of uncapturable youth. There are countless other innocent victims of overzealous and ill advised surgical and chemical intervention — the actor’s instruments rendered immobile and frightening as Kabuki masks.
I worry for young people who think middle age looks like these women with their bizarrely unlined visages and virtually paralyzed upper lips. Actresses, demonstrably beautiful women, erase every trace of life and history and humanity and render themselves puppets.
Updating and remakes are always a tricky business. 2008’s “The Women” is something of a patch job. The most affecting scenes were lifted straight out of the 1939 version. Writer-director English chose to keep a few reshuffled setpieces, and the screenplay lurches unevenly from well-crafted classic storytelling to uneasy psychobabble and The Secret-fueled self-actualization. Many of the biggest laughs in the preview audience belonged to the original. The WTF moments (and there were plenty) belong entirely to the remake. There’s a scholarly piece waiting to be written comparing the two, but I’ll leave that to others.
Updating is fine. 1939’s “The Women” is dated. I admit that. But the filmmaker’s choice to elevate female friendship over motherhood… over marriage… over all, that decision strikes me as a bit extreme and even worrying.
Paring down 1939’s “The Women” to a central foursome, “Sex And The City”-style, wasn’t an intrinsically bad idea. The two films were coincidentally released only a few months apart and seek the same chickflick date audience – Bring Your Friends screams a promotional poster featuring Photoshopped images of The Women who were probably in separate states when shot. The fact that both films use the same talismanic female friendship story points and imagery is equally troubling. Either there’s something wrong with me, or there’s something wrong with them. I pick them.
What’s the deal with shoes and fashion shows? Are these really as central to women’s lives as they seem? I mean, I have nothing against shoes, but my daughters are more important, and I love my husband more than shoe shopping and Saks. Saks in the City.
In updating these society women and “elevating” their friendship, what have we lost in the shuffle? Plenty. What comprises this new friendship anyway? According to the film, friendship involves talking at the same time, arguing about next to nothing, and gossiping.
Most damning though, these women seem unable to handle much of anything. The currency of their exchange is not intimacy or empathy or understanding. My friendships are based in mutual interest in our lives, our children, our parents, mutual support in our work. This kind of real female friendship is hinted at in the promotional materials but strangely absent in the actual film. These four “close friends” indicate no real acceptance or familiarity, only proximity and referenced history. True longterm friendships don’t get busted by momentary lapses and bogus betrayals so easily; those stakes are too high for the infraction. Since these women do precious little but talk, not much else happens. The tiniest misunderstanding that could be cleared by one face to face conversation becomes instead a major setpiece and power struggle. Are women really that stupid? Oh, wait. Some are. According to the polls, they’re even willing to vote against their own interests for an unvetted wingnut and put her a heartbeat (or melanoma) away from the Oval Office.
That said, let’s talk about The Secret, the What Do I Want self actualization horsecrap of the moment. Apparently, happiness and fulfillment and success, even for a divorcee and mother, is strictly a case of It’s All About Me. While the 1930’s society gals were lampooned for caring only for their status and their husbands and their families, these self-centered narcissists of the new millennium haven’t come all that far, baby. And they’re headed in the wrong direction.
What exactly do these four updated, new and improved women accomplish in this brave new world? Well, Sylvie revolutionizes women’s magazines by celebrating natural beauty. (Yawn.) Mary changes the world and finds her self by designing her own line of forgettable black, white and red dresses. Alex’s contribution was a book of clever essays penned six years ago — an enterprise that apparently used up every ounce of wit and left her only an insatiable sapphic lust and perpetual adolescence. Edie dabbles in the kind of creative parenting represented by wearing clown noses, generalized chaos and a completely un-PC need to strive for that elusive male heir. She’s a gossipmonger and mediocre painter with two (count ‘em- two) NYC apartments – a studio for her husband and a sprawling one for her ever-increasing and unindividuated brood. And the new Crystal works at the Saks perfume counter but lands a soap opera acting gig. And experiments with her Sapphic side over the closing credits. Wow. What an update. Fifteen years in development and that’s the best Murphy Brown’s creator can come up with? I want to wash my brain out with soap.
But wait. There’s more. The climax of the movie features an antic farcical birth. Handheld camera chaos, screaming, panicking — has there ever been such a bunch of headless chickens gathered anywhere since fifties television? The strategically timed amniotic fluid leak, the cinematically swift labor – so fast that the husband and father can’t even make it to the hospital for the birth of his son. Where ARE we? On what planet? Oh yeah. Movie World. The place I don’t mind visiting but never want to live.
Do any women ever really act this stupid?
Oh, but the unrelenting shallowness doesn’t end there. Mary’s mass of (practically patented Meg Ryan) curls bounce and multiply unnaturally until her third act makeover when Mary’s seriousness and sense of New-Age Secret-driven purpose gets fueled and highlighted by her now stick-straight and professional hair. Apparently, in Movie World, curls and waves are shorthand for Bohemian and un-serious. Her shoes evolve too – the more successful and self-involved Mary becomes, the higher her heel. The flat-footed people-pleaser morphs into a self-actualized fashion plate goddess and narcissist, winning over daughter Molly with afashion show. Molly, her semi-lost daughter, the secretly smoking skanky ho anorexic. That Molly.
Without her mother’s knowledge or intervention or presence in her life, Molly turns out just fine. Now, there’s a Secret even Mary didn’t know much about. The very same daughter who sported a new-age-y updated eating disorder for the first part of the film is cured by her mother’s fashion show. Well, that plus a series of unseen and covert phone calls with Mary’s estranged friend and Molly’s new parallel universe mom/counselor Sylvie. We really should notify all those poor treatment centers out there banging their metaphorical heads against metaphorical walls. The cure’s all about talking on the phone with a well-meaning adult friend followed by a well-timed fashion show.
Now, tell me again, how have women evolved and improved their lot? By being absent from their children’s lives and indifferent to their husbands? And this is a good thing?
I have a problem with that. I truly do.
Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte are the female archetypal elements Diane English juggled and sifted to half-bake twenty-first century Mary Haines and her minions. Mary is the Carrie; it is her story that is mostly told. Big is Stephen Haines, working in high finance and affording ridiculously large homes. No attention is paid by Mary or Carrie to any of the work that pays their bills. Samantha and Miranda become Sylvie, competent and professional and happily unmarried. Annette Bening’s Sylvie is perhaps more fully a woman and less a gay man than Samantha, and like Miranda, she’s a terrific friend in spite of the totally bogus and one-time-only betrayal. In “SATC”, the bogus betrayal comes from Miranda. It’s the kind of rift that occurs in middle school and usually gets patched up in a week. In both films, longtime friendships are tossed aside over precious little. Since one adult conversation would clarify all misunderstandings, considerable care must be taken to never read emails or answer phone calls. I believe filmmakers call it raising the stakes. (My great aunts used to stop talking for years over slights like these; I really think those days are history for most women.)
Miranda is a breeder with little interest in the father of her child or the child himself. Caught up in a law career and more intimately involved with best friend Carrie, she’s the very model of the new age woman according to English. Jada Pinkett Smith’s Alex is supposed to be the clever writer, the black lesbian Carrie whose Big Du Jour is a bitchy supermodel. Charlotte’s corollary is Debra Messing’s mess of a mom, all sitcom timing and broader than broad pregnancy jokes. Ha ha. She has to pee. And she’s eating a lot. Oh stop. My sides ache. Don’t tell me. Her water broke and the baby’s coming? Oh, I haven’t seen that plot in weeks. Seriously. WTF. Get that woman on a plane back to Alaska pronto and…oops. Wrong cliché.
Kudos to the Ms. English & Company for providing this viewer with a cinematic insruction manual detailing the first new (and possibly most disturbing) use for a stick of butter since “Last Tango In Paris.” On another cine-gastronomic note, I defy “SATC” audience members to see a tray of sushi with innocent eyes.
In Hollywood, the industry wisdom is this: Girls will watch boys or girls. Boys will only watch boys. Well, I’m getting tired of watching Hollywood’s idea of women and girls.
Here’s a thought. We care about more than shoes and getting married.
Both films purport to show women (and men) what it’s like to be middle aged in the city. I never thought I’d say this, but I actually enjoyed “SATC” more. It’s like the drag queen version – featuring funnier clothes, broader characters, and less revered source material. The film plays like four decent episodes of the HBO series with an inflated budget. Expectations aren’t high. To quote Abraham Lincoln: People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. Fans of the series are not likely to be disappointed.
On the other hand, there’s “The Women.” Starting with inarguably excellent source material, the stakes and expectations are higher. The original film isn’t widely seen these days; even NETFLIX doesn’t offer it. But it’s a classic. The remake is simplynot.
“The Women” is more insidious, more dangerous. The actresses are better, and it might seem like more of a prestige project. It has pedigree. With The Secret playing such a large if unbilled role, it’s probably going to earn even the Mighty Oprah’s imprimatur. But don’t be fooled, people. We’re in Oz. What “The Women” is missing is a brain and a heart and a home and some courage. What’s wrong with 1939’s “The Women” doesn’t get fixed in the update. Far from it, the notions of normalcy in 2008’s “The Women” open up a Pandora’s box of problems that are presented as the New Age okay. And that’s not okay. Not by a long shot.
Have a bunch of women friends over and watch these films on DVD together. Have your finger on the pause button and go all Mystery Science Theater on ‘em. I think a good time can be had by all. But “Sex and the City” will be on video first. Enjoy.