Bright Lights Film Journal

Sinful Remake: The <em>Women</em> Problem

“Wife, get a real life for yourself. Career woman, the career isn’t everything. Hussy, men still marry ladies. Lesbian, explore your ‘male’ issues … “

I gotta admit; I often remake classic black and whites into modern versions in my head, especially those strong woman-centered flicks from the 1930s and ’40s. So I get why remaking a delicious classic “women’s film” into a contemporary “chick flick” must’ve seemed like a good idea. George Cukor’s 1939 The Women is a pretty romp in spite of and because of the gleeful sincerity with which it follows traditional popular female stereotypes — the scheming trollop from the wrong side of the social bar played with wicked elegancy by Joan Crawford; Norma Shearer’s Mary Haines, a classy good girl wife done wrong by the cheating husband; her old-school, stand-by-your-man mother; a wise, much-married grand dame; gossiping socialites, etc. It offers fems of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century a lot to cringe over, including a plot centered on women cat-fighting over a man, the collapse of a marriage due to a scheming hussy, a naïve husband sympathetically portrayed as falling prey to a femme fatale, and so on. Still, with the excellent direction, a stunningly talented, convincing female cast, and a screenplay full of witty repartee, the classic version is a dated spectacle with timeless magic. The recent version of the film tries so hard to stick to the heart and basic plot of the original while being contemporary that it lacks the magic and commits a cardinal sin typical of too many modernized classic remakes — stock character types without the authenticity and comedic richness an audience can buy no matter the absurd plot twists.

Director and screenwriter Diane English had the right touch as the guiding force behind television’s then new career woman of the era — Murphy Brown. That show’s star, Candice Bergen, helps round out the all-female cast of the new The Women as Mary Haines’ mother. Unfortunately, English’s 2008 retake of the film suffers from the effort to bring together “sex in the city” girlfriend chemistry with a witty contemporary spin on the old cheating husband-wife vs. mistress plot. Separately, Annette Bening does her thing as Sylvia Fowler, that familiar ambitious career woman who doesn’t have any regrets, thank you very much, about not going what’s fast fading as the traditional woman’s way. As Crystal Allen, Eva Mendes is sexy as always and properly trampy in too much make-up and tight clothes. As Mary Haines, Meg Ryan is back with that trademark character naiveté and cute nose crinkle that helped make her the favorite heroine of the light romantic comedy genre in the ’80s. She’s the oblivious, upper-middle-class wife who needs her marriage to crumble in order to bring her back to being an appropriate modern woman role model for her young teenage daughter and her husband. Debra Messing plays Edie Cohen, the literal “mother earth” wife of the group; and since it is a new millennium, Jada Pinkett Smith makes the group officially politically correct twenty-first century style, by doing double duty as the required lesbian and woman-of-color member of the group, Alex Fisher. The only problem is that the chemistry among the three never comes together; instead the film banks on the fact that women viewers are still as hungry as ever for their “sex in the city,” chick flick fix so they’ll buy the four women sister friend group out of sheer formulaic familiarity.

Truth be told, the Sex in the City sister crew was an odd mix with prudish Charlotte, nympho Samantha, stuck-up Miranda, and cool Carrie. Carrie, like Mary Haines in The Women, was the glue that we got; and the ties that bound them all around might have been proximity and mutual acquaintance, but it spun into a group chemistry and complimentary difference that viewers could buy. Perhaps it’s because Sex got seasons to nurture that chemistry before it got to the big screen unlike The Women. We don’t really need them all to be old college roommates as Mary and Sylvia are, but we need this completely disparate group of women to have that sister girl vibe that actually registers as truth. Instead, we are verbally told, like hussy Crystal is informed, that they are tight, but only Mary and Sylvia make a little bit of sense together. Messing is left at raising eyebrows at the lesbian lifestyle and sexual innuendos of Smith’s Alex, and the four are like a group of set female types constantly thrown together for no real reason.

While this latest version makes loose use of class, it doesn’t employ it effectively as a way of posing how women’s social status and resulting interaction result in many of those group friendships. While this new Women may not need the men on-screen since they’re clearly the center focus anyway, the film does need more than the defense of the career woman lines, the expected scheming wench’s dressing room critique of how sexless, oblivious society wives fail their husbands, and all the other stock messages to the twenty-first century-era woman, including one uttered with a little expected zest by Ms. Bette Midler: Woman find thyself first, or in layman terms: Wife, get a real life for yourself. Career woman, the career isn’t everything. Hussy, men still marry ladies. Lesbian, explore your “male” issues . . .

This contemporary Women assumes that if it plugs in the staples, the rest of the film’s elements will follow, and so will the laughs and female viewers’ mad love. I was struck by when and how women laughed and engaged the film during the screening I attended. Before Mary quite began tossing her husband’s clothes out the window and the earth mother announces her water has broken and they all end up in the birthing room near the film’s end, the all-female audience was laughing and commenting a step ahead of the moment and so was I even though I hadn’t seen it previously. It wasn’t that it was so side-splitting funny, it was more that it was so familiar and I could say the lines and anticipate the next move too well. And still, that and the uncomfortable mesh of modern-woman sound bites and old-fashioned masculine and feminine tropes could possibly be forgiven if only the supposed four friends were less types and more human and together they radiated a bit of that authentic sister girl tightness its targeted audience loves. This lack showed up the film’s holes entirely too much and made me long for the men to be on screen, even husband Stephen’s frequently mentioned receding hairline.

It seems that the contemporary chick flick romantic comedy genre has solidly arrived as films become increasingly merely formulaic more than humorously smart or entertainingly progressive. The new Women provides a cautionary note to remake happy Hollywood: a lot of times redoing a classic film should remain the stuff of daydreams; entirely too much can get lost in translation.