September 18, 2008

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The Women (PG-13)
Actresses too old for this sort of thing parade around in bad hair and worse make-up occasionally making the kind of yelpy shriek that in years past would have been followed by “well, I never” in The Women, a stagey unbelievable comedy about female friends and frienemies.

Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening, sporting some truly horrendous hair and makeup but some mostly pretty decent clothes) is a high-powered fashion magazine editor who is also dumber than a bag of rocks and wouldn’t last one minute in the real world of publishing but let’s pretend that this movie is correct and simply having good nails is enough to make you a force-to-be-reckoned-with kind of woman. She gets these good nails at Saks, where the chatty nail girl (Debi Mazar) gossips about her friend, the perfume spritzer girl, Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes) and her affair with a married man. (And if you don’t know what a perfume spritzer girl is you will loathe this movie the way most people loathe fascism and you should really just decide now to avoid it.) As it turns out, the married man is the husband of Mary Haines (Meg Ryan, all weird lips and crazy giant curly hair), Sylvia’s good friend. Mary is working at her father’s department store in hopes of one day running it and managing her perfect Martha Stewart-ish household (the cheating husband, one daughter) out in Connecticut and not fulfilling any of her own needs. (But she looks so perky!) Sylvia’s not sure whether or not to tell Mary about the affair and she talks it over with Edie (Debra Messing), a perpetually pregnant wife of an artist, and Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith), the sullen lesbian author who dates supermodels. Though they can never quite decide what to say to Mary, they needn’t have worried — of course she’s going to wind up at the same nail girl’s station and of course she’s going to hear the gossip.

The rest of the movie muddles through — much, to be fair, as a real person would — the mess of an affair from the cheated-on person’s perspective. What would you do? What would you do after that? When would you tell your spouse that you know? Would you leave? Would you confront the bitchy spritzer girl? Would you straighten your hair (I don’t know why, but in movies like this it always comes up)? Mary gets some good advice from her been-there mom (the always brilliant Candice Bergen) and some horrible advice from her friends. She represses and expresses and withdraws and reinvents. And, because there are no men in this movie (or, almost no men) we see the changing dynamic with her husband through the eyes of others, including her young daughter (India Ennenga) and her household staff (Cloris Leachman, Tilly Scott Pederson).

Household staff? Who has a household staff?

In the theater where I saw this movie, the film melted at one point. A frame of Bening and Ryan bubbled and burned away, leaving brown crisps at the edges. It was by far the most exciting part of the movie. (I eventually saw the rest of it, despite my initial hopes that the entire film had congealed into a plastic brick, Shrinky-Dink-style.) This movie, which could have really done some neat stuff with women and marriage and the crisis of self that can set in in the late 40s (or whatever age Ryan is pretending to be), always takes the easy way out. Always takes the sitcom joke rather than the smart dialogue, the stagey set-up and demand to be wacky or hysterical (those seem to be the only emotions) rather than the building of an organic character. And Ryan and Bening, the movie’s center, seem particularly false.

There are moments in this movie that offer more: Bergen as Mary’s mother is entertainingly world-weary and affectionate. A scene with Bening and Ennenga is full of absurd Afterschool Special problems but also has moments of surprising genuineness. A subplot about Bening’s career is mostly stupid (and utterly unreflecting of anything like the real world of media) but there could have been a nice story about what happens when you get to the top.

The Women is all potential and no payoff. After a summer when studios seemed to actually acknowledge their female audience, it’s too bad that they continue to talk down to it with overproduced, underthought nonsense like this. D+

Rated PG-13 for sex-related material, language, some drug use and brief smoking. Written and directed by Diane English (from a 1939 screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, which was from a play by Clare Boothe Luce), The Women is an hour and 54 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Picturehouse.