[Screen It]

(2008) (Meg Ryan, Annette Bening) (PG-13)

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Dramedy: A woman must contend with the discovery of her husband's affair and her close friends try to support her.
Sylvia Fowler (ANNETTE BENING) is the snobby and single editor of the fashion magazine Caché who often looks down on others' attire, especially when she's spending time in her favorite department store, Saks Fifth Avenue. It's there that her blabbermouth manicurist, Tanya (DEBI MAZAR), gossips that perfume department saleswoman Crystal Allen (EVA MENDES) is having an affair with a married man. Sylvia pays little attention to this story until Tanya reveals the man's name to be Steven Haines, who just so happens to be married to her best friend since college, Mary (MEG RYAN).

The latter would seem to have it all: A successful designer career working for her father; a good kid in Molly (INDIA ENNENGA) who's cared for by nanny Uta (TILLY SCOTT PEDERSEN) and housekeeper Maggie (CLORIS LEACHMAN); and a husband who's a successful businessman. Yet, Mary is so busy attending and holding social events that she hasn't figured out why her husband is always "working" so late.

Sylvia and her friends -- perpetually pregnant Edie Cohen (DEBRA MESSING) and lesbian writer Alex Fisher (JADA PINKETT SMITH) -- disagree about whether to tell Mary, but she soon learns the truth from Tanya while getting her nails done. As Sylvia is distracted by the possibility of losing her job, and Mary's mom, Catherine (CANDICE BERGEN), tries to give her daughter advice based on her own similar experiences, Mary must figure out what to do about her husband and her life.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
You may have come a long way baby (as a particular cigarette ad, of all things, used to say back in the '70s), but most women still face inequality when it comes to matching up with men in the business world. That's especially true in the entertainment industry and particularly movies where youth and beauty reign and the older one gets, the more likely they'll end up playing the mom character, crazy old (and often sex-crazed) ladies, or, if they're lucky and named Judi Dench, British monarchs.

Some of that stems from studio worries about male viewers not wanting to see so-called "chick flicks" and thus potentially lessen the box office potential. There is some validity to that point. While some such films are successful -- most notably this past summer's big screen version of "Sex and the City" -- they're more the exception than the rule.

Money matters aside, the solution, of course, is for women to create films with more female roles. And if one's going to do that, why not go all of the way and make the cast entirely female? I'm not talking about just the main and supporting roles, but even background characters, with nary a man in sight.

Such is the case with the appropriately titled "The Women," a remake of the now dated but heralded 1939 film of the same name and uni-gender from director George Cukor and starring the likes of Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell. While it's an update of that classic (that was earlier remade as a musical in 1956's "The Opposite Sex" although it bucked the all-female cast), it feels quite a bit like "Sex and the City 2" or as another reviewer friend pointed out, "Saks and the City."

That's because the venerable department store serves as a pivotal accessory and plot point in the flick. And while men are absent visually, their presence is what drives part of the plot, meaning there's enough of a high fashion and romantic drama mix that you expect Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and/or Samantha to show up or at least walk by in the background (any film with a line such as "Your Pradas are wrecking my perennials" will inevitably draw such comparisons).

Compared to the female "fab four," however, the quarter here lacks the same sort of charisma - collectively or individually - that many seasons on HBO afforded those characters' big screen debut. Meanwhile, this film was reportedly in the making for 14-some years and had a number of high-profile actresses rotating in and out of the pivotal roles until finally settling on those now in it.

That out of the way, the question remains regarding whether the pic stands on it own (having not seen the original, any comparisons are obviously moot). To be fair, this sort of film isn't my cup of tea, so viewing pleasure might vary, especially skewed toward the targeted gender.

Although the story features four friends - played by Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith - the plot is really only about two of them - Ryan's busy mom character who learns of her husband's affair, and Bening's fashionista who discovers her power is apparently waning in her field.

Their performances are generally okay, but the histrionics and melodrama occasionally border on tedium, and there's little here that's terribly novel. The same holds true for notable women's issues including fidelity, friendship, career success and how men react to that, motherhood and more.

No solutions are offered, but many things are discussed. Based on my less than perfect 40+ years observing the opposite sex, that seems in line with what many women want. Men demand solutions and women want understanding and camaraderie, all of which means the pic could strike a nerve with the ladies.

For the rest of us, however, the film lacks the sort of wit and biting satire that I've heard fueled the original. And the lack of any substantial comedy or sustained comic relief means the melodrama occasionally gets to be a bit much.

Thankfully, the likes of Cloris Leachman, Bette Midler and Candice Bergen are good in their supporting roles, although they're like to make one wish the main women of "The Women" matched up with them better than they do. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed September 3, 2008 / Posted September 12, 2008

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