MAKING A serious chick flick is bit like mixing black and navy blue—there’s something about it that jars, unsettles and assaults the eye. It breaks the rules. It doesn’t work. Serious chick flicks leave people like me (intelligent in many ways, but still a chick flick devotee) thinking, “I would have enjoyed this had you done less maudlin pontificating and more entertaining.”
That’s the problem with The Women, a remake of a 1939 film that was more blistering, biting and funny—just the kind of movie you’d expect from an all-star female cast, playing yowling New York socialites. The Women (2008) is much more polite and serious—taking on not just the theme of infidelity but also the themes of female friendship, motherhood, loyalty, career and parenting, with a dash of overbearing mother and Botox thrown in.
Magazine editor Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening) learns from a loquacious beautician that the husband of her best friend, Mary Haines (Meg Ryan), is having an affair with a girl who sells perfume at Saks (Eva Mendes). When Mary finds out, she faces the question betrayed wives face: Should she dump the man she still loves, or keep her mouth shut in the hope that he really still loves her, too? Her friends face the difficulty of supporting her even when they think she’s wrong and when they have the opportunity to capitalize on her pain.
Meg Ryan plays the exaggeratedly feminine character she always plays: charmingly irrational, aggrieved and a bit self-righteous, given to moments of quirky hysteria and even at age 46, still cute. (Meg Ryan is the actress for those of us cursed with the adjective “cute.” Thanks to Meg, we believe that what we lack in glamour we can make up for in effervescent adorableness.)
An all-female cast ably carries the rest of the film. Bening seems to channel Samantha from Sex and the City: her style and ambition, her independence masking insecurity, her ruthlessness that’s destructive when used for herself and powerful when harnessed for her friends. Debra Messing plays her sweet, dippy, euphorically pregnant sister. Jada Pinkett Smith plays the token lesbian writer—the requisite reminder that they could all just ditch men and date peevishly starved models who always put the toilet seat down.
Bette Midler makes an appearance as a sappy four-time divorcee with a shirt that says “Love is the Best Drug,” asking the old hackneyed question, “What do you want, Mary?” Candice Bergen plays Mary’s mother, who has faced the same questions of betrayed love and independent identity. Unfortunately, her answers make the movie’s most cliché lines. Too bad, since a few lines (for instance, “Your Pradas are wrecking my perennials,” dryly delivered by Mary’s housekeeper) show the script’s potential.
Given its aspirations as a serious chick flick, I hoped The Women would provide some insight into why the Silda Spitzers and Elizabeth Edwards we know so well always stand by the men who ill-use them. We always belittle women like that. We assume they have cynical motives: the money, the power, the spotlight, the fame. If scandal guts their men of power and fame, we assume faithful women are floppy doormats who haven’t the gumption to forge an identity apart from their husbands.
But one shouldn’t expect keen political or social commentary from a chick flick, and The Women falls short of providing it. Just like the befuddled modern woman, the movie predictably tries to have both feminism (defined as straight hair, a wardrobe renovation, a career that’s all about what you want, and sleeping in the middle of the bed) along with a happy ending. It all feels forced, the way feminism always feels if you actually try to live it out. It’s because modern feminism is fundamentally self-seeking and love isn’t. Pride—not wanting to be made a fool of, as Mary says—is incompatible with love, which takes humility and makes fools out of everyone.
One may not get keen commentary from The Women, but one does get a chick flick with an all-star cast—a chick flick that takes on big themes and gives the same old predictable answers.
Alisa Harris is deputy editor of Patrol. She teaches journalism at The King’s College in Manhattan.
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