Wednesday, September 24, 2008

these Women take a modern turn

Picturehouse's The Women

In The Women, Mary Haines seems to have it all--a beautiful country home, a rich financier husband, an adorable 11-year-old daughter and a part-time career creating designs for her father's venerable clothing company. Her best friend, Sylvie Fowler, leads another enviable life--as a happily single editor of a prominent fashion magazine, a possessor of a huge closet of designer clothes and a revered arbiter of taste and style poised on New York's cutting edge. But when Mary's husband enters into an affair with Crystal Allen, a sultry "spritzer girl" lurking behind the Saks Fifth Avenue perfume counter, all hell breaks loose. Mary and Sylvie's relationship is tested to the breaking point while their tight-knit circle of friends, including mega-mommy Edie Cohen and author Alex Fisher, all start to question their own friendships and romantic relationships as well.

"The Women" was originally a play on Broadway in the mid 30's. It was then turned into a movie in 1939. I myself have not seen the original Broadway production or the original movie adaptation, so I cannot speak for those. Some might call it a chick flick, but The Women is obviously science fiction.It takes place in a surreal parallel universe unoccupied by men except as unseen participants in cell-phone conversations. With one charming exception, not a single masculine entity appears in this film, which stuffs every scene — every party, restaurant, fashion show, store — with sleek 21st-century exemplars of upper-crust New York metropolitan womanhood.

The original starred Norma Shearer as the suffering Mary and Joan Crawford as her rival, that floozy Crystal Allen. Shearer was stoic; Crawford was a snake with painted eyebrows. The swankest performance (or my favorite, in any case) was Rosalind Russell's as Sylvia, Mary's gossipy gal pal, here played by Annette Bening with delicious savoir faire but a bit less zip. Rounding out the foursome of friends: Jada Pinkett Smith as Alex, the no-nonsense lesbian (that wasn't in the original); Debra Messing as Edie, the ever-breeding earth-mother; and, last but not least, Ryan's Mary, a suburban supermom trying to juggle motherhood, spousehood, charity work and an unrewarding job with her father's clothing business.

We first learn of Mary's marital troubles from a blabbermouthed manicurist (Debi Mazar), who spills to Sylvie, who spills to Edie, who then together spill to Alex, who persuades them, finally, to spill to Mary. But by then Mary already knows, because the same manicurist inadvertently spilled to her ages ago. Ryan's Mary is a far more independent creature than Shearer's — who faced the loss of her husband as a loss of income and status — but she has the undeniable, irrepressible warmth and decency that the part demands. And there's a scene in the kitchen, with Ryan and a pair of housekeepers (including Cloris Leachman), that does things with a stick of butter I never imagined possible.

Fourteen years in the making, The Women marks a serviceable directorial debut for English, an Emmy-winning TV writer and producer who created Murphy Brown. She goes light on the cattiness, heavy on sisterhood and seems determined to bolster everyone's self-esteem. This movie was fun and Just hearing that Jada Pinkett-Smith would be playing a lesbian was enough for me. A womanly 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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