Film focus

WHAT: “The Women”

RATED: PG-13 for sex-related material, language, some drug use and brief smoking

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

RATING: 1½ out of 4 stars

‘Women’ makeover is all boutique, no bite

Somehow, Diane English has managed to make the “Sex and the City” movie look like a documentary.

With her remake of George Cukor’s 1939 cat fight “The Women,” based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce, English has applied all the lighthearted instincts of her sitcom background and seemingly none of the insights of the source material.

“The Women” was intended as a satire of society mavens and their frivolous lives; in directing for the first time and writing the script, the “Murphy Brown” creator has turned it into a celebration. Sure, it has an all-female cast of solid actresses, as did the original (though perhaps not quite the stellar collection that included Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell).

But Cukor’s tone and timing are missing. And F. Scott Fitzgerald did uncredited work on the first script. Now there’s someone who knew a little something about class distinctions, a perspective that’s hard to match.

Meg Ryan does her patented cutesy thing in the Shearer role as Mary Haines, a wealthy Connecticut wife and mother who learns that her husband is having an affair. The other woman? Still the perfume girl at the Saks Fifth Avenue cosmetics counter, a role that Crawford infused with her well-defined style, played here with cartoony va-va-voominess by Eva Mendes.

Mary’s friends, including magazine editor Sylvie Fowler (Annette Bening), rally around her in her time of need, offering snappy one-liners and broad facial expressions. Basically, their support consists of that great female pick-me-up, shopping. There are also lunches and dinners in which we must sit and watch the characters rehashing events we’ve already seen on screen, which is about as compelling as it sounds. It’s also a preferred tactic on “The Hills,” if that tells you anything about the amount of substance “The Women” offers.

But considering the potentially meaty issues these women are facing – marriage, motherhood, career, identity – all their troubles wrap up way too quickly and neatly. Mary whips up one of those self-help vision boards – you know, the kind Oprah espouses, based on her fervent following of “The Secret” – and she figures it all out in no time. (Besides extolling the oversimplified mysticism of author Rhonda Byrne and the like, “The Women” also serves as an ad for designers Narciso Rodriguez and Marc Jacobs and the high-end lingerie line La Perla. Even the no-nonsense Sylvie has her scruffy lap dog on a Burberry leash.)

Debra Messing’s character, a hippie artist, gets little more to do than pop out babies, which sets up the kind of lazy ending you’d find in the most hackneyed chick flick. Meanwhile, Jada Pinkett Smith as a predatory lesbian novelist feels like even more of an afterthought, and an insulting one, at that. And Debi Mazar, as the gossipy manicurist who dishes about Mary’s husband’s infidelity, comes off as a gum-chewing Queens anachronism, a clunky attempt by English to remain true to the original material while simultaneously updating it for modern audiences.

English’s “Murphy Brown” star Candice Bergen and Cloris Leachman briefly liven and class things up as Mary’s mother and housekeeper, respectively. But the few moments that contain any semblance of truth or realism come from Mary’s preteen daughter, Molly (India Ennenga), who’s insecure about her body thanks to the oversaturation of impossible female images she sees all around her.

But then, how does her mother achieve her own sense of liberation and self-worth? By stitching together a fashion collection and runway show, complete with emaciated models. Her greatest dilemma after that is whether to say yes to the offer from Saks to sell her designs.

Ironically, Mary probably would have contributed more to the world by putting on yet another charity luncheon at her Greenwich mansion.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.