Filled with scheming, backbiting, shifting allegiances, and cutting dialogue, George Cukor's 1939 film The Women didn't always present the most flattering picture of womanhood, but his camera always flattered its subjects. That's only the first, and most obvious, difference between the original and the new remake by longtime writer and producer turned first-time director Diane English (best known for Murphy Brown). English's Women looks indifferent and sometimes purposefully ugly, presenting its stars—most of whom have achieved "women of a certain age" status—as flatteringly as pasta salad in a deli counter.
If that were the only change, things might still have worked out. English still had a great gimmick in the film's all-female cast, and could draw on a town full of actresses who complain about the difficulty of finding good roles for women. She also had page after page of memorable dialogue from Clare Boothe Luce's original play (and the original screenplay from Anita Loos and Jane Murfin). And while there's no way the 1939 film's attitudes—particularly its icky ending—would make it into a 2008 film, it still adds up to a head start. So how, instead of savage bon mots, did we end up with Meg Ryan boasting about her sexual prowess by saying "I could suck the nails out of a board"?
In a part originated by Norma Shearer—who gave the impression she'd never heard of nails or boards, much less fellatio—Meg Ryan plays a woman who learns her husband has launched an affair with a scheming perfume-counter worker (Eva Mendes). Fortunately, she has a crew of devoted, cartoonishly characterized friends to help her out: magazine editor Annette Bening, constantly pregnant artist Debra Messing, and lesbian author Jada Pinkett Smith (who conveys her sexuality by chewing gum as if she were angry with it).
They come armed with quips. (On Mendes: "What do you think she sells? Chanel Number Shit?") They also come armed with huggy affirmations, and in Bening's case, a subplot about her job at a women's magazine, where she occasionally feels a bit guilty about playing on women's insecurities, in spite of intense pressure to stay the course. What they don't come with is a vision for the movie, which is never clever or entertaining enough to exist without one. A few old hands—Cloris Leachman, Bette Midler, Candice Bergen—escape the black-hole-like pull of English's dialogue, but it's mostly an embarrassment from start to finish. The original was a tart dipped in acid; this one's a biscuit sprinkled in Splenda.