Andy Bockelman: 'The Women' wastes potential talent

Throughout the course of human history, the female gender has suffered a great deal of inequality and mistreatment. Sadly, this is only exacerbated in "The Women."

Mary Gaines (Meg Ryan) is juggling a lot in her life - a family, a career and a longtime friendship with strong-willed magazine editor Sylvie Fowler (Annette Bening). The relationship between the two is solid, and they will do anything for each other.

This closeness is put to the test when Sylvie discovers Mary's husband, Stephen, is engaging in extra-marital affairs. She and fellow friends Edie (Debra Messing) and Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith) want to broach the subject delicately, but soon find out that Mary already knows.

The trust among them is shaken further when they confront Stephen's mistress (Eva Mendes) and Mary's life starts to crumble. Things get worse still when Sylvie has to choose between her career and her loyalty to her friend.

Ryan is vaguely convincing in a part practically tailor-made for her talents, while Bening operates on the same level, keeping an air of professionalism about her at all times. Mendes will make the hairs on your neck stand up as catty temptress Crystal Allen, a department store perfume salesgirl who feels no guilt in breaking up a marriage.

Messing is annoying as doting housewife Edie, whose fifth and most current pregnancy is all that gives her any personality. Pinkett Smith's screen time is curiously reduced, yet this may be a blessing in disguise because outspoken lesbian writer Alex's dialogue consists of little more than hate speech against men.

Complex characters are far and few, and the actresses who play them seem resigned to their one-dimensional natures, from Carrie Fisher as an unscrupulous journalist to Debi Mazar as a gossipy manicurist. The only cast members who ring true are India Ennenga as Mary's daughter, Molly, and Cloris Leachman as the Haines family housekeeper, Maggie.

While an all-female cast is an appealing idea, writer/director Diane English royally botches the opportunity to modernize Clare Boothe Luce's play and subsequent 1939 movie of the same name. It is disturbing to think that following 70 years of feminine progress, a screenplay that reduces women to such broad caricatures actually could get produced.

Ryan and Bening do their best to rise above the material, but they have nothing on original stars Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell. For that matter, Mendes has nowhere near the aura of Joan Crawford.

Segments such as Edie's guttural delivery room bellow and Sylvie's "Terminator"-like analysis of the first floor of Saks do nothing to help.

There is a glimmer of hope, however, in Mary's interactions with Molly, who is experiencing the onset of puberty and facing body issues along with concerns about her parents' separation. Keeping this in mind, one wishes that the younger generation will have a better chance to create something worthwhile and relevant.

"The Women" is a perfect example of wasted potential. Instead of circumventing male characters by casting even female dogs, English should have developed her characters better.

It also would have been nice to see a protagonist whose career - fashion design - is less stereotypical.

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